Almost one half of the MLB schedule (76 games, to be exact) consists of divisional games. How a ballclub performs against its fiercest rivals can ultimately determine the course of its campaign, especially with a return to the standard playoff format in 2021.
With that in mind, the Yankees’ struggles within the AL East so far this season have proven to be a concern, and they run the risk of becoming the reason why the team might fail to meet its goals for the fourth straight year.
The Yankees have recovered from their dreadful April to the tune of a 29-22 overall record and a respectable .569 winning percentage. However, they are still third in the AL East, relegated to the second (and final) wild card playoff berth if the season were to end today. The primary reason? Of the four serious contenders in the division (sorry, Orioles), the Yankees have the worst intra-divisional record.
The Rays are first in the AL East and boast a 14-8 divisional record. The Red Sox have cooled off a little from their hot start, but remain just one game behind and are an impressive 12-6 in the division. The Blue Jays are just one game over .500 on the season, but have hung around thanks to a 10-11 record in the AL East (inflated by six wins against the Yankees). Meanwhile, the Bombers themselves are just 12-16 in the division, and have yet to face the team with perhaps the most potent offense in baseball this year, those boys in Boston who you may have heard of before.
There hasn’t been a more critical juncture to the Yankees’ season so far than what awaits next week: a seven-game homestand against the Rays and Red Sox. For all the frustrations about the Yankees’ performance in 2021, they’re still just 2.5 games out of first place, and they have a whole week of home games against the two teams they’re chasing. It’s a week that could either reaffirm the Yankees as the pride of the AL East, or one that could prove that they are still clearly a step behind their division rivals. So far, all signs have pointed to the latter.
Divisional woes have bitten the Yankees before. Their struggles against Toronto in 2015 cost them the division, dooming them a one-and-done against Dallas Keuchel and the Astros. They were mostly fine against the AL East in 2018, but the Red Sox were that much better, which forced the Yankees into the wild card again. And of course, the Rays cruised to the AL East crown last season, thanks to an 8-2 record against the Yankees. The Yankees have made the playoffs five times in the last six seasons, but they’ve only won the division once, leading to some tense, white-knuckle wild card games.
This year, it’s distinctly possible that the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees could all make the playoffs. I’m not sure if I can think of a more frightening scenario than a one-game playoff against either of those teams, particularly if it’s on the road. That should motivate the Yankees into winning the division, but so far, the results haven’t been there. The Yankees particularly need to do better than 9-10 against the Orioles and Blue Jays, but that’s where they stand right now.
Of course, the Yankees have only completed about 37 percent of their divisional schedule this year – there’s still plenty of time to right the ship. But, 29 of the remaining 48 AL East games are against Tampa Bay and Boston, which is far from easy sledding. Unless the Yankees step it up in their own division, they could get forced into another wild card game, which is an experience they should strive to avoid at all costs.