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Yankees face challenge down the stretch, and the time is now to capitalize on weak competition

The Yankees' schedule is about to get a lot tougher.

Bob Levey

The Yankees are desperately clinging to playoff hopes these days, and while they recently passed the slumping Blue Jays in the Wild Card race, they are still three games back of the tied Tigers and Mariners for the second playoff spot. If the team does its job over the course of the next week though, the race could grow plenty more interesting. Tonight, the Yankees begin a six-game homestand tonight with the Astros and White Sox, a pair of under-.500 teams that the Yankees cannot really afford to blow opportunities against anymore.

The constantly rebuilding Astros are a slightly better team than the 111-loss laughingstock that dropped 15 in a row to end the season, but they are still on pace for about 95 losses. Likewise, the White Sox improved from the group that lost 99 games last year, and in addition to boasting two of better players in baseball in southpaw Chris Sale and rookie slugger Jose Abreu, they actually aren't terribly far under .500 (seven games). Still, it's an under-.500 team, and their performances leave a lot to be desired. The Yankees have to win these series and sweep them if at all possible, lest they want an even more arduous road to the playoffs ahead of them.

After these two series, the Yankees will face the AL Central-leading Royals (Dear Barbara, it's weird to write that) in a makeup game in Kansas City next Monday, and then they play three in Detroit and three in Toronto to close out August, a stretch of 13 games in 13 days. Both Detroit and Toronto are right in the thick of the Wild Card race and are unlikely to be pushovers. The Yankees begin September with an off-day, then begin a nine-game homestand against the Red Sox, Royals, and Rays. Last place Boston is another team the Yankees have play well against, as it's very possible that they will be the last under-.500 team the Yankees will face in September until they close out the month against that very same Red Sox team. The Rays completed their impressive surge back to .500 on Friday, and while they fell back under when they lost the recent series in Tampa to the Yankees, they have been playing very well since the middle of June, even without David Price in August.

To further complicate matters, that three-game series on September 9-11 begins an exhausting stretch of 21 games in 20 days to end the season. The Yankees' final off-day is Monday, September 8th. That's it, barring any rainouts. If the Yankees are still in the playoff hunt by the end of September and that 21-game period, they are going to be wiped out. (Thanks, schedule makers.) The 21 games include the aforementioned three at home against Tampa, a September 12th doubleheader in Baltimore followed by two more games against the O's, three in Tampa, eight at home against the Blue Jays and Orioles, and the season-ending three-game series at Fenway Park.

Those eight against Toronto and Baltimore in particular figure to be pivotal to the Yankees' playoff hopes, as the Blue Jays will in all likelihood still be in the hunt, and O's will probably be wrapping up their AL East division title. (They currently hold a 7.5 game lead over the second-place Yankees--that's not vanishing unless Baltimore implodes.) As for the last series, the Yankees can only hope it goes as well as the sweep of Boston that pushed them into the playoffs in 2012 at the end of the season. Although it would make for an extremely kind Farewell Tour present for Derek Jeter, the Red Sox definitely won't be rolling over for the weary Yankees, either.

There are 40 games left in the regular season. It probably feels like there is still ample time for the Yankees to make up playoff ground, but the Yankees cannot let this opportunity to gain ground against the Astros and White Sox slip away. The remaining schedule is not going to feature nearly as inferior opponents aside from the Red Sox. They simply have to take care of business and prepare for the challenging schedule ahead.