The Yankees were only on the road for six games, but in some ways it felt much longer. Over the course of a single road trip, the Yankees' season ended, began again in glorious fashion, and was brought down to Earth. There's quite a lot to unpack after these six games, and there's quite a lot to shrug at. There's cause for hope, cause for concern, and cause for the crossing of fingers and praying to the baseball gods that everything breaks well. What have we learned as the Yankees come home to face the Twins?
Baseball is Hard
That's a very general statement and should be expanded upon. Baseball is a sport that's played on a professional level by athletes that make millions upon millions of dollars. We know that baseball is hard. So what that section header means is not necessarily that baseball is hard, it's that it's incredibly hard to routinely perform well on a consistent basis when playing professional baseball. We glimpsed this when the Yankee offense ran headlong into a brick wall for a few days. It began at home with a sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays, and though the Yankees scored four runs in their first game in Cleveland, they only managed to score one in the next before erupting for eight in the third. A small handful of games isn't enough to tell us about an offense. Yet what a small handful of games can teach is that we shouldn't use a small handful of games to try to learn anything substantial. Jacoby Ellsbury wasn't hitting a lick until he did. The whole offense wasn't hitting a lick until it did. This is because baseball is hard, and slumps happen. It's easy to slump at anything, especially at baseball. The Yankees slumped, and rose from the ashes once again.
The Blue Jays Are Good
While the Yankees were having a rough time winning baseball games in Cleveland, the Blue Jays were running circles around everyone else. That's easy to do when you have the best offense in the world, as the Jays just so happen to have. However, the Blue Jays, we now know, had simply embarked on the opposite of a slump. They set the world on fire, and fires burn out. The awful Yankees and world-beating Blue Jays locked horns and in a shocking turn of events, the Yankees won two of the three games in the series. What's more impressive is that the Yankees allowed just one home run in the series. The Jays have made a living this year by hitting a the ball into the stands over and over again (they're second in baseball as a group, just three behind the Astros and two ahead of the Yankees), and the only ball they hit out was a two run shot by Jose Bautista. Yankee pitching has been subtly great of late.
Carlos Beltran Can Still Hit
Since May 1st, Beltran has been an above-average hitter. Over the last week, he hit .389/.450/1.000, including this.
He's unquestionably been an asset on offense for almost the entire season, and the Yankees would not be as offensively strong as they are without him. The ball he lost in the sun yesterday probably cost the team the game (and the sweep), but that happens to everyone. It's a tough sun in right field at Rogers Centre. The real problem was that the Yankees only scored one run. It's hard to win ball games with only one run's worth of offense.
Alex Rodriguez is Tired
A-Rod admitted to the media yesterday that he felt awful. He's hit just .091 over the last week and struck out in 32 percent of his plate appearances. Over the last month he's hit just .213. The heat of summer and the grind of a long season may be getting to the 40-year-old designated hitter, and that's normal and to be expected. A-Rod has already gone above and beyond the call of duty for the Yankees this year, and deserves all the credit in the world. Yet, maybe for the time being, it would be best to give him some more rest. Perhaps he should be put into a quasi-platoon for a week. Perhaps he'll come roaring back with the extended homestand and the cooling temperatures in September and October. It stands to reason that A-Rod will be okay, as will everyone else that's being strained with the dog days of summer. Andrew Miller has hit a rough patch, like many relievers do at this time of the year. It happened with Mariano Rivera all the time. These players will be okay once they gather their strength. Their time will come.
Masahiro Tanaka's Still Got It
This was never in much doubt, was it? Tanaka is one of the most gifted pitchers on the planet, the minor tear in his elbow be damned. His one run complete game effort over the Jays offense was a titanic feat, especially since he loaded the bases with no outs for Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Escaping that mess with only one run's worth of damage (scored on an out, no less) is incredible. Tanaka will still have the occasional frustrating start, but he is still an ace at his core and will start the first game of the playoffs.
The Division Will Be Tight
The Yankees managed to escape with the lead in the division. They did it by playing .500 ball over the road trip. They'll need to do better to avoid the sudden death match that is the Wild Card game, but they're up to the task. Yet so are the Blue Jays, and the Orioles have quietly laid claim to the second Wild Card berth too. This will be a mad dash to the finish line, and the lead will likely change hands several times before all is said and done. It will be stressful. It will be maddening at times. There will be frustrating losses and ecstasy-inducing victories. There will be home runs and strikeouts and maybe even a rare stolen base or two. Greg Bird will hit a home run at Yankee Stadium. Rob Refsnyder will return in September. We may get our first look at Gary Sanchez. Luis Severino will fight tooth and nail to stay in the rotation when Michael Pineda returns. At some point, Nathan Eovaldi will complete the seventh inning. Andrew Miller will blow another save but lock down many more. Justin Wilson will strike out many men and walk quite a few too. Mark Teixeira will hit many more home runs. And the Yankees will keep marching on, as they have all season.
What Have We Learned?
We have entered the final push for the division title. It will be hard. It will be grueling fight. But when all is said and done, when the hits have been hit and the pitches pitched, there is a strong chance that the Yankees will be the winners. We have learned that there's no predicting baseball, Suzyn, but that it is a cold hard fact that the Yankees are an excellent baseball team. The Blue Jays have also become an excellent baseball team. It will be like the days of old when the Yankees fought the Red Sox for supremacy. We do not yet know who will be this year's Bucky bleepin' Dent, or this year's Aaron Boone, or this year's Raul Ibanez. We don't even know if such a figure will be necessary, or if there will be an opportunity for one unsuspecting player to save us all. That figure may wear a uniform with a blue bird on it, or even an orange one. We will all know soon enough. Yet we know that baseball is good, that baseball is the greatest of all sports. We know that baseball is a game that the Yankees excel at, and we are all witness to the return of one the greatest players of all time. In a way, this season always had the chance to be magical. This is not a perfect team. This is not the 1998 juggernaut, nor the 2009 club that christened the new stadium. This is a team born of league-wide parity and defied expectations. It is a team that can win a championship. What have we learned? We have learned that this team is hard to knock down, and it is in first place.
Nicolas Stellini is a staff writer at Pinstripe Alley, where he writes about the Yankees and covers the Double-A Trenton Thunder. His national coverage can be found at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.