Yankees better off in wild-card spot
Congratulations to the New York Yankees.
They have clinched yet another playoff berth. It’s their 15th in the last 16 seasons. Red Sox fans ought to offer a begrudging toast to their pinstripe-loving friends.
The Yankees certified their bid with a methodical 6-1 win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night. The on-field celebration was sedate, relievers walking in from right field as if shagging flies on a Sunday morning in Cleveland.
Then, they popped corks, commandeered the sound system, and ruined another clubhouse carpet with champagne.
The Yankees spent millions — and earned this. They deserve the opportunity to defend their World Series title. And now that their place in October is assured, I would like to offer them the following advice:
Do not win the American League East.
I’m not suggesting that the Yankees lose on purpose. No, no, no. I would never do that. But this weekend would be a great time to, you know, start Romulo Sanchez at Fenway Park. Or maybe see how Eduardo Nunez looks in the leadoff spot … three days in a row.
If the season ended today, the second-place Yankees would play the first-place Minnesota Twins in the American League Division Series. The Tampa Bay Rays, who effectively lead New York by 1 1/2 games because of a tiebreaker, would pair up with the Texas Rangers.
And if the Bombers are smart, they will keep it that way.
Sure, a division title could mean home-field advantage until the World Series. But it wouldn’t be worthwhile. Not in this case. Because if the Yankees win the AL East, they probably wouldn’t face their optimal first-round opponent.
And make no mistake: The Twins are their optimal first-round opponent.
Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire is a great manager. One of the best in baseball. But the Yankees have whipped his teams to the tune of a 54-18 record since 2002.
Yes, that’s a .750 winning percentage. Yes, that includes the playoffs.
The Twins have won two postseason games against the Yankees during their half-century in Minnesota. Johan Santana started both. And to paraphrase Rick Pitino, he isn’t walkin’ through that door.
Gardenhire has already announced the first three pitchers in his postseason rotation: Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing, in that order.
Not one of them owns a victory over the Yankees.
I’m not talking about this season. I’m talking about their careers. They are a collective 0-6 with a 4.57 ERA in 69 innings.
Also of note: In recent days, the Twins haven’t exactly lived up to their reputation for pristine, fundamental baseball. While the Yankees celebrated, Minnesota absorbed a 10-1 drubbing by the last-place Kansas City Royals.
The Twins have surrendered 10 or more runs in four of their last five games, all losses.
Gardenhire fumed after Monday’s defeat, saying, “We haven’t pitched worth a crap on this whole trip. It’s not acceptable. … You can’t lose the edge. And it starts with pitching. … We have to do better.”
Well, they didn’t. And a postseason series against the Yankees is no place for a beleaguered pitching staff. The New York batting order would be a heat sheet for the bat-rack dash. The Yankees also are comfortable in the Twins’ new outdoor ballpark, having won their only series at Target Field.
Yankees players wouldn’t admit as much after Tuesday’s win, but they have the psychological edge on Minnesota.
By comparison, New York would have a much tougher time with the Rangers in a five-game series. Cliff Lee will start Game 1 for Texas, and Yankees fans would prefer to avoid the guy who was responsible for their team’s only two losses in the World Series last year. Left-hander C.J. Wilson, slated to start Game 2, possesses the power stuff to handcuff New York.
It’s not that the Yankees should fear the Rangers, who have their own one-sided postseason past with the pinstripes (1-9). But Texas has the sort of deep, dangerous lineup that can turn a series by slapping seven runs on an unsuspecting starter.
The Rangers have been absent from October for so long (1999) that they may have forgotten how intimidating the Yankees can be. You could describe Texas as an upstart. New York has struggled with such teams over the past decade — the ’02 Angels, ’03 Marlins, ’06 Tigers and ’07 Indians.
At its best, the richest team in baseball should be able to handle any foe. And the Yankees certainly looked postseason-ready on Tuesday night.
CC Sabathia was dominant for 8 1/3 innings. Mariano Rivera, perhaps having smoothed his mechanical troubles, picked up the final two outs. Derek Jeter had a series of good at-bats, scoring three runs and driving in another.
Alex Rodriguez had two RBIs and made a pair of sparkling plays at third base.
New York played airtight defense, produced three sacrifice flies and executed with staggering efficiency. “The first step,” manager Joe Girardi reminded the players afterward. (Even when they party, the Yankees mean business.)
Girardi, who specializes in narrow focus, must now prepare his team for the postseason. Ensuring that Jeter, A-Rod and others are healthy is more important than winning games — particularly when a division title might be counterproductive.
I think Girardi understands that. Listen to what he said after the game:
“I’ve got to make sure our guys are strong. That’s the first thing. I still want our division. I still want home-field advantage. But I can see there’s some tired bodies out there. There really is. Our guys have been going at it hard. It’s something I’ve got to think about.”
See? The alibi is already in place. Rest the regulars. Enjoy a Pena-to-Russo-to-Miranda double play. Line up the rotation, with extra rest for Andy Pettitte. Just don’t win, baby.