Entering play today the Yankees sit three games out of a playoff spot behind the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, and Cleveland Indians. A five-game losing streak on the part of the Rangers has pulled them even with the Rays, winners of three straight, at 81-66, just a game and a half ahead of the Indians. The Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals are both just a half game behind the Yankees at 78-70. To say that the race could come down to the wire is an understatement.
With so many teams stacked within such close proximity of the wild card, the Yankees will need to take advantage anywhere they can. Dropping this weekend series to the Red Sox is obviously a bad start to that, but they do have a favorable schedule down the stretch if they can manage to take advantage of it. There can really be no more series losses against the likes of the Blue Jays, Giants, and Astros. Playing the Rays tough in New York is essential. Unfortunately, the Yankees are not the only team with a favorable schedule remaining. The Cleveland Indians get to feast similarly on the likes of cupcake teams for the remainder of the season without a single strong team in the mix to break it up. They finish out the year playing the Astros, Twins, and White Sox.
Texas' collapse does open the door for those still in the race, now that one spot isn't cemented to any one team. If they continue their swan dive, the Yankees could still manage to find themselves in the playoffs if the Rays falter and the Orioles and Royals run into tough competition. Helping themselves is the first object and they haven't managed to take full advantage of teams collapsing around them enough to this point.
The injuries keep coming for the Yankees and there seem to be no more signs of stopping. Derek Jeter's season is over, Brett Gardner's season is likely over, and Alfonso Soriano is going to be dealing with a sprained thumb for whatever is left of the season more than likely. The bullpen is gassed beyond recognition as a former strength of the team and CC Sabathia still hasn't managed to find himself. Those are all tough blows to overcome, especially when you add that Hiroki Kuroda has returned to Earth a bit and Alex Rodriguez has an injured hamstring that has him basically crawling station to station on the bases.
It seems a little like the team is setting its fans up for heartbreak in the worst way. Not many expected them to somehow scratch and claw their way into contention this late in the season after being dealt blow after blow with injuries and inconsistent performances all season. Here they are on September 15th, still in a race it almost seems like should have been over months ago. It is a testament to the team that they have managed to hang around this long and it is, of course, possible that they find a way to sneak into the playoffs with some help from their competition. Knowing your team is out of it in August is one thing, but having them end up so close despite all odds is quite another. Games are not truly must-win mathematically at this point, but they are as close to that as you can get. The losses this time of year are painful and losses to teams they should beat are inexcusable if they hope to play in October.
Should the team end up just short of the playoffs, everyone will know where to point the fingers. The sweep by the Mets and White Sox, the blown games by the bullpen against the Red Sox, the series loss to the Blue Jays just a few weeks ago. It doesn't help to play the "what if" game, but in this case, imagining a scenario that flips those just halfway back in the Yankees' favor kind of makes the whole situation they are in now a little harder to swallow. The playoffs have been within their grasp and if they end up on the outside looking in, these games will hurt just a little more.
There is still hope, though. Hope that seemed extremely fleeting weeks and months ago. The fact that there is still hope for a team that has had seemingly as many injuries as wins is exciting and the next two weeks of baseball should be as fun to watch as any. There is a chance for another trip to the playoffs, but there is also a chance for a load of disappointment in falling just short. Whatever happens, at least they have a chance, and sometimes that's all a team needs.