It is going to take a minor miracle for the Yankees to reach the playoffs this year. There is no getting around that fact. They are in dire straits, far behind the Blue Jays in the AL East, and with several teams in front of them in the hunt for a Wild Card spot. As much as Gary Sanchez might individually will it, a postseason appearance just isn’t in the cards.
All hope is not lost quite yet though, and in fact, a familiar team from the Yankees’ past could provide some inspiration. Twenty-one years ago, the Yankees’ renaissance was kickstarted by an unlikely September run that catapulted a disappointing squad from under .500 to their first playoff berth since 1981.
Much like 2016, that 1995 team had a mix of youth and veterans guiding it, hoping to lead the next generation of Yankees success. They got a breakout performance from rising star Bernie Williams, as he hit .307/.392/.487 with a 129 OPS+ and 6.4 WAR. Andy Pettitte was a fine young starter who finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. They were also bolstered by superb veterans Paul O’Neill, Wade Boggs, David Cone, and John Wetteland, just to name a few.
The parallels aren’t exact, but they can be found. Didi Gregorius is the same age as Bernie Williams was in ‘95, and this has easily been his most complete season to date. Sanchez’s sensational August could make him a dark horse Rookie of the Year contender. CC Sabathia and Brian McCann qualify as contributing veterans, and even Dellin Betances and Masahiro Tanaka somewhat fill those roles too, despite not being 30. There is still plenty of time for more youngsters to contribute as well.
Regardless of how secure these connections are, the point remains that the 1995 Yankees woke up on August 29th in an extremely similar position:
Compare that to where the Yankees are now:
The 1995 Yankees were four and a half games out of a playoff spot with 31 games to go. They trailed four other teams in the standings and were even with two others.
The 2016 Yankees are three and a half games out of a playoff spot with 33 games to go. They trail five teams in the standings.
It was extremely grim for the ‘95 team. August was a 14-17 nightmare with an eight-game losing streak, and after a loss to the Royals on August 28th, the Yankees were five games under .500. Their -14 run differential was a touch worse than the -9 mark of the current team. They were even behind forgotten ‘95 contenders, like the Brewers and Royals.
The ‘95 Yankees needed a miracle. They got one.
On August 29th, the Yankees laid a 12-4 smackdown on the AL West-leading California Angels, who were in the middle of a free fall that eventually left them out of the playoffs. Pettitte beat them 4-1 the next day, and on the 31st, O’Neill capped the sweep with the best game of his career, a three-homer assault on Angels pitching.
That sweep put the Yankees just two games behind the three-team kerfuffle at the top of the Wild Card. Then, they were unstoppable in September, losing just six games the rest of the way and finishing with a league-leading 22-6 record. It was .786 baseball, an unbelievable 127-win pace over a full season. They needed miracles like light-hitting Pat Kelly crushing a ninth inning two-run homer to come back and beat the Blue Jays on September 29th.
Due to the tough competition, not even a 21-7 showing would have been enough. The playoff spot was not clinched until the last day of the season. They did it though, and beloved captain Don Mattingly was finally playoff-bound. The October drought in the Bronx was over.
So that is the task that lies in front of the 2016 team: Shock the world. Have monster games like O’Neill’s hat trick. Ride unlikely heroes like Kelly. These players have already impressed by staying in the race after selling at the trade deadline, but it will take another level to leapfrog all those teams to reach the Wild Card game. It can be done.
Maybe it will work out. Maybe they will simply have to settle for contending very late in the season, much like the 1993 team did before being outrun by the eventual World Series champion Blue Jays. (They were tied with Toronto for first place in the AL East 23 years ago today; they just couldn’t keep it up in September.) Either way, the thrill of the playoff hunt and meaningful September games can only be a boon for this up-and-coming squad.
There are big series ahead against Wild Card contenders Kansas City, Baltimore, and Boston. Go nuts, kids.