Yankees open door for AL East rivals

The Yankees will qualify for the postseason, one way or the other. They almost always do. But their flaws – particularly on the mound – are becoming more evident by the day, in a manner that leads me to believe this won’t be the autumn of world title No. 28.

A year ago, the Boston Red Sox awoke with the best record in the American League. They were 8 1/2 games up on the Tampa Bay Rays. And they blew it.

A year ago, the Atlanta Braves had the third-best record in the National League. They were 9 1/2 games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card race. They blew it, too.

Today, the New York Yankees’ lead over Baltimore in the AL East is 3 1/2 games, whittled from a season-high 10 on July 18.

Are they vulnerable, too?

Yes. I mean, Steve Pearce batted cleanup for them Tuesday in his Yankees debut.

Do I envision an all-out somersault from grace, below the double safety latch of the expanded playoffs? No. The Yankees will qualify for the postseason. They almost always find a way. But their flaws are becoming more evident by the day, in a manner that leads me to believe this won’t be the autumn of world title No. 28.

The Yankees haven’t been very impressive the past six weeks. That’s a fact, not an opinion. They are 18-20 since the aforementioned high-water mark, while their chief competitors in the AL East — the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays — have played some of their best baseball all year. (The unyielding Orioles are tied for the league’s top record during that span at 24-13.)

Among other developments, we’ve learned that Alex Rodriguez is much more valuable to the Yankees than his critics would like to admit. A-Rod hasn’t played since July 24, when a Felix Hernandez fastball broke a bone in his left hand. The Yankees are only two games over .500 since then.

Rodriguez isn’t expected back until the middle of September. And now the Yankees will be without their other run-producing corner infielder, Mark Teixeira, for a week or two because of a left calf injury.

The Yankees haven’t morphed into a light-hitting outfit. They still rank fourth in the majors in runs scored. But the lineup is much less daunting than usual. The August slumps of Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin and Raul Ibañez haven’t helped.

But the most startling evidence of all bears repeating: Pearce, a career .237 hitter, was the Yankees’ designated hitter Tuesday night. The Yankees recently acquired the 29-year-old from Houston — baseball’s worst team — for cash considerations. Pearce, who has changed teams four times since spring training, went 0 for 2 with a walk and run scored.

The Yankees can say it was only for one game against a left-handed starter. And that might be true. But Steve Pearce? Really? A $200 million payroll, and a former Pittsburgh Pirates reserve was the Yankees’ best option for a lineup spot once held by Lou Gehrig?

In one sense, that’s the risk of carrying the oldest roster of any AL contender. The Yankees’ average age is 33.0, according to Baseball-Reference.com. That far exceeds the division rival Orioles (28.1) and Rays (29.8), to say nothing of the fledgling Oakland A’s (27.7).

Experience can help in October. But that’s only true if the experience is able-bodied. We know the Yankees will be without Mariano Rivera this postseason, the greatest closer in history. But what if Teixeira, Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte are on the active roster but something less than full strength? It is as if the Yankees are in spring training mode, hoping their bodies will recover in time for the second season — which could last one cruel game if they fail to win the division.

For now, the odds still favor a 13th AL East title in the past 18 years. The Yankees have seven games left with Baltimore and six with Tampa Bay. As long as the Yankees stay around .500 in those meetings, they should be fine. By reputation, the Rays are the bigger threat because of their superb starting rotation. But they have lost four in a row to fall five back.

The Orioles, who recently acquired Joe Saunders from Arizona to fortify their rotation, are proving to be much more than a transient nuisance. They have defied every reasonable projection, due in large part to their outrageous record in one-run games (24-6).

Go ahead. Dismiss them as a mathematical fluke. As the Red Sox and Braves learned last year, confident teams who aren’t supposed to win can be very dangerous. The Orioles are using a formula that wouldn’t necessarily pass a laboratory test: timely power, low batting averages, a lot of strikeouts, terrific bullpen, unheralded starters, good defense. But it’s working.

Quick, name the current Baltimore rotation. … If you guessed Saunders, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton and Miguel Gonzalez, then your name must be Buck Showalter.

The Yankees’ rotation is better — but not by a wide margin. With Ivan Nova joining Pettitte on the disabled list, manager Joe Girardi has CC Sabathia (two DL stints this year), Hiroki Kuroda (godsend), Phil Hughes (good since the All-Star break), Freddy Garcia (4.90 ERA) and rookie David Phelps (better out of the bullpen).

Are they good enough for the Yankees to win the division? Yes. Is that a World Series-winning rotation? Probably not — especially for a team that’s limping toward Labor Day.

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