Commentary

This year's Yanks flirting with infamy

If 2012 Bombers blow 10-game AL East lead, they will make wrong kind of history

Updated: August 24, 2012, 12:02 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CHICAGO -- The New York Yankees, holders of probably more all-time records than any other team in the history of professional sports, are in position to make history once again.

If they succeed in blowing the rest of the 10-game lead they had accumulated over the American League East a month ago, they will have accomplished the biggest collapse in the history of this storied franchise.

Think about that for a moment.

The 1933 Yankees, with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey in the starting lineup and Joe McCarthy in the manager's office, had a six-game lead June 6 -- and finished second, seven games behind the Washington Senators.

[+] EnlargeMark Teixeira
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastMark Teixeira & Co. are reeling after a three-game sweep in Chicago. They'd better get their act together. Quickly.

The 1935 Yankees, minus Ruth but with Gehrig, Dickey, McCarthy and Lefty Gomez, had a 5 1/2-game lead June 20 -- and finished three games behind the Detroit Tigers.

And the 1987 Yankees, with Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph and Rickey Henderson, managed by Lou Piniella, were five games out in front July 5 -- and faded to fourth, nine games off the pace.

But no Yankees team in their illustrious history has ever run off by 10 games ahead of the division and come back to the field.

This one certainly gives every indication it is capable of it.

Of course, those 1930s-era teams had only one shot, World Series or bust, and this year, there is the added safety net of the second wild card, which can be a trap of its own.

But the reality is that the Yankees, who looked like a lock for the AL East title on July 18, are now fighting for their postseason lives on Aug. 23.

The only thing that remotely compares to this is the 2004 AL Championship Series, in which they took a 3-0 lead over the Boston Red Sox and proceeded to lose the next four games.

But at least those Yankees made it to the postseason and advanced to the second round.

Incredible as it might seem, there still is a chance the only games these Yankees will play in October are the last three regular-season games against -- you guessed it -- the Boston Red Sox.

"I don't think I'm going to go jump off a bridge or anything like that," Joe Girardi said Wednesday night, after the Yankees had lost 2-1 to complete a three-game sweep by the AL Central-leading White Sox. And after the normally reserved Girardi had shouted and taken a run at a fan who heckled him on his way out of the ballpark.

It's not only the pennant race that is tightening up around the Yankees; there is reason to believe the collars are, too.

On Friday, they will look to CC Sabathia, making his first start after a 15-day stretch on the disabled list with inflammation in his pitching elbow, to get them well again against the Cleveland Indians, who have fallen out of the Central Division race.

If ever the Yankees needed Sabathia to reassert himself as an ace, it is this weekend, because once Monday comes, the real season resumes.

After these three games in Cleveland, the Yankees' next 26 games -- you read that correctly -- come against AL East teams, over a span of 28 days.

Six of them will be against the Tampa Bay Rays, who don't seem to know how to quit and are breathing down the Yankees' necks, a mere 2 1/2 games back.

Seven of them will be against the Baltimore Orioles, who everyone expected to bag it by now but are sitting right behind the Rays in third place, five games out.

And there are six games left with the Red Sox, whose only remaining purpose this season will be to inflict a mortal wound on the Yankees. Those last three games of the season, games that a month ago looked as if they would be meaningless, might now turn out to be of vital, perhaps even historic, importance.

"It's not gonna be easy," Derek Jeter said. "But like I always say, if you win your games, you'll be fine."

If only it were that simple. But nothing about this team has been simple this season. The 2012 Yankees have been as difficult to get a handle on as a bucketful of eels.

They lost several key players early in the season -- Mariano Rivera, Brett Gardner, Michael Pineda -- and rebounded as if nothing had happened, with the outfield platoon of Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez, Freddy Garcia, and, especially, Rafael Soriano serving as more than adequate fill-ins.

And yet, their season can be divided into three sections -- pre-June, post-June and, of course, June, the month that has kept them in the pennant race.

Through April and May, the Yankees were 27-23. In July and August so far, they are 25-22. Since the All-Star break, they are 20-19, virtually a quarter of their season, in which they have been only one tick better than mediocre.

In June, however, the Yankees looked like the best team in baseball, winning 20 of 27 games, including 10 in a row at one point.

They have not looked nearly that good since.

Part of the reason is that many of the players who have been asked to shoulder more of the load might be starting to wear down. The bullpen, so good through the first half of the season, is starting to show signs of overwork. Highly placed team sources believe that Jones, who is 35, and Ibanez, who turned 40 in June, are tired from their workload and showing it in their play.

And Eric Chavez, who has filled in so admirably for Alex Rodriguez, reminded us last week about the fragility of his health when, after having played four games in a row against the Tigers, he was unavailable to play the next three games against Toronto.

Which brings us to the case of Rodriguez, who was having a disappointingly pedestrian season by his standards but whose absence since July 25 seems to have had a profound effect on the team.

Sure, Chavez has outperformed A-Rod in his limited appearances against right-handed pitching, but there is a belief in the front office that the Yankees' lineup is a lot less formidable without Rodriguez in it.

Even if he no longer scares opposing managers -- how many times did we see other teams walk Robinson Cano to load the bases in front of A-Rod, who is tied with Gehrig for the most grand slams in major league history? -- the Yankees believe opposing pitchers still fear him, if only by reputation.

And there is empirical evidence that neither Cano nor Curtis Granderson, both lefties, is the same hitter without A-Rod in the lineup. In the 27 games since A-Rod went down, Cano is batting .242 with just three home runs, and his overall batting average has fallen 17 points, to .302.

Granderson has dropped just eight points, to .241, and has hit just six homers in those 27 games, after having hit 26 in the previous 97. Most alarmingly, he has struck out 36 times in 93 at-bats since A-Rod's injury, a sign that he might be trying too hard to do too much.

There are other problems, of course, such as the rapid decline of Ivan Nova, who is headed to the disabled list, and the slow recovery of Joba Chamberlain, who might be headed back to the minors.

And there are reasons to be optimistic, such as the expected returns of Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte in September.

But aside from one month of the season, the Yankees have had a very rough time so far of maintaining any kind of consistent winning pattern, and after this weekend, the road only gets rougher and more difficult to navigate.

Overcoming their injuries, regaining their midseason form and ultimately winning their 28th World Series championship is the kind of history the organization and its fans have come to expect and the kind other teams can only envy.

But right now, with 38 games left to play, it seems every bit as likely, if not more so, that the Yankees will create another kind of history this season, the kind no team would want to make.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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