- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- The Yankees are back from their nine-game, three-city road trip, and if there is anything they have learned, it is probably that they are not as good as the best of the West.
But it doesn't really matter, because with the exception of seven games against the Texas Rangers in July and three with the Houston Astros in August, the Yankees can forget about the AL West until October -- if they get that far.
And if they do, it likely will be at the expense of teams in their own division. That's the good news, and it's because there is no beast in the AL East this season.
Despite all the injuries that have depleted their starting rotation and the underproduction of their high-priced offense, the Yankees return home from the coast very much in the thick of the AL East race, tied for second place in the division with the Baltimore Orioles, both of whom are 4-1/2 games behind the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays.
And who do you think is coming to town for a three-game series beginning Tuesday night in the Bronx? The Blue Jays, of course.
In fact, the Yankees' next 15 games are against AL East teams, 12 of them at home. Because of the peculiarity of their schedule, practically all of their West Coast travel is behind them, with the exception of a three-game trip to Arlington, Texas, at the end of July.
If the Yankees are going to make any hay this season, it will have to be against the AL Central and their own divisional rivals, against whom they play 56 of their final 94 games.
This season, it is not as daunting a task as it would have been in years past.
It would be a mistake to say this 15-game stretch is make-or-break, but certainly it will tell us a lot about whether the 2014 Yankees have a prayer of playing in October.
"You don’t want to make too much of it, but it’s obviously an important period when you’re going to see the teams that we’re going to see," Joe Girardi said. "It’s a huge stretch against East Coast teams, and we have a chance to make up ground and build distance between other teams and ourselves, which I think is really important."
What is especially important is how well the first game goes for the Yankees, when Masahiro Tanaka gets the ball for the opener against the Blue Jays. Toronto was the first big league team Tanaka had ever faced, on April 4 at the Rogers Centre, and the third pitch he ever threw in a major league game was hit out of the park by Melky Cabrera.
Tanaka settled down after that to throw seven innings, allowing six hits and three runs (two earned) and striking out eight to nail down his first MLB win. There have been nine others, and a lot of talk about the Cy Young, rookie of the year and even the MVP, but as Girardi said before Sunday's 10-5 loss to the Athletics in Oakland, "It's only June. There's still a long way to go."
And for Tanaka, Tuesday night's game represents perhaps the first major hurdle in what has been an otherwise seamless transition from the Nippon Baseball League. Because as we know, it is a lot easier for a pitcher to beat a big league team when the team has never seen him or his stuff, and a lot tougher after the opponent has an idea of how he will work and what he will throw.
Tanaka has only faced one MLB team twice, the Chicago Cubs. He shut the Cubs down easily the first time. The second time around, they dealt him his only MLB loss so far, and his first loss in nearly two years. So yeah, he has something to prove when he goes up against the Blue Jays and their far-more-powerful lineup Tuesday night.
"As far as from the first game, I really don't have any thoughts from that," Tanaka said. "Toronto is a team that is the best team in our league right now, so obviously I want to go out there and try to get a win."
But he did acknowledge that he has evolved as a pitcher somewhat since that first outing.
"I don't look at myself becoming a different pitcher, but I can say that I've gotten a little bit more used to the game," he said. "I know how to prepare before games, the preparation going into a game. That would probably be a difference from the first time going into now."
The Jays, too, will know how to prepare for him. It is essential that Tanaka make the necessary adjustments, because after him there is an alarming drop-off in quality in the rotation.
That question will get answered in a hurry this week, as will others, when the Orioles get their second shot at Tanaka on Sunday and the Red Sox get to see him the following weekend.
In fact, not just those three days, but the next 15, will go a long way to determining where the Yankees end up this season.
Up now: If you can bear it, the Rapid Reaction from Sunday's ugly 10-5 loss to the Athletics, as well as my postgame blog on why it is likely you haven't seen the last of Vidal Nuno in the Yankees' rotation.
Coming later: Ian Begley has you covered as the Yankees kick off the 2014 edition of HOPE week, so check in for that this afternoon.
55mRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com
5hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com
6hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com