Commentary

Yankees must win games, not fights

Yanks-Sawx series too critical to wild-card chase for Bombers to seek revenge

Updated: September 5, 2013, 2:48 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK – This time, it's not about the division. That's pretty much out of reach.

And it's not about revenge. That would be counterproductive, the equivalent of committing seasonal suicide.

The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox will play four games at Yankee Stadium this weekend, starting Thursday night, and this time it is about just one thing: Not allowing the Red Sox to play spoilers for what might still be a wow finish to a mostly uninspired Yankee season.

[+] EnlargeYankees
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Yankees need to keep the fist-pounds going this weekend against first-place Boston in the Bronx.

The Yankees held on to win 6-5 Wednesday night over the playing-out-the-string Chicago White Sox, their 17th win in 23 games since their manager delivered the Girardi Doctrine, which stated his team needed to win 35 of their last 47 games if they wanted to play in October.

So far, they have kept up their side of the bargain, but they are still only halfway there. The next 11 games -- these four with Boston, followed by four against the Orioles in Baltimore and a final three against the Red Sox back at Fenway -- will determine whether or not this team can go the distance.

And they can only do that by playing baseball, not beanball, and by focusing on the task at hand, which is winning ballgames, not fights.

"I don't think anybody's in a position right now where they can afford to hit somebody or charge the mound or any of that stuff," said Brett Gardner, who was the angriest Yankee on the field not named Joe Girardi the night Ryan Dempster drilled Alex Rodriguez 18 days ago at Fenway, sparking a near on-field melee.

"We've got to stay on the field and try to win ballgames," Gardner said. "That's my only thought process, trying to win."

It might help that Dempster will not get the chance to throw the ball at anyone this weekend, having started in Wednesday night's 20-4 -- you read that right -- win over the Detroit Tigers at Fenway. But there's always John Lackey, who had some choice things to say about A-Rod, too, starting on Saturday afternoon.

And there's always the bad blood that seems to flow through everyone's veins -- players, managers, fans and even some members of the media -- whenever these two teams occupy the same field.

But the Yankees need to play this one cool, the way Mariano Rivera did Wednesday night, called up to make a rare four-out save when David Robertson, in relief of CC Sabathia, turned a 6-1 romp into a 6-5 nail-biter.

Mo retired all four batters he faced, and the Yankees completed a sweep over a bad team that had swept them, rather ignominiously, a month ago in Chicago.

But the Red Sox are not the White Sox. They are leading the Yankees by eight games in the AL East, and even, as Robertson said, if the Yankees manage somehow to win all seven of the games remaining between the two teams, they will still need some help to win the division.

So that is not the focus. The Yankees task, one which seems eminently more doable as they continue to win, is to grab a wild-card berth, and preferably not the second wild card, which seems like nothing more than a one-day delay in their winter vacation.

No, their best hope for meaningful play in October clearly lies in vaulting the Tampa Bay Rays, who started the night with a 2½ game lead over the Yankees for the second wild-card spot, and maybe even the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers, both of which are five games ahead.

That may be out of the Yankees' reach, too, but it is something to shoot for, and finally, after four months of mediocre to bad baseball, they finally seem to have the ammunition to make a run at it.

"We're healthy," said Sabathia, who worked into the eighth inning for only the second time since June in winning his 13th game. "We got or guys back. You know, [Jeter's] in the lineup, Al's in the lineup, Sori's right here. We're healthy and feeling good."

True, the Yankees have played markedly better since the return of Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and A-Rod, as well as the acquisition of Alfonso Soriano. They are scoring runs again.

The pitching is still somewhat suspect, however, with Hiroki Kuroda struggling Tuesday for the fourth straight start, and Sabathia, while better than he has been for a long time, still nowhere near his top form.

"The first inning, my command was kind of all over the place, and it was really all night," he said. "But a couple of times early in the year my command was off and the game would get out of hand. So being able to battle back and battle through this game feels good."

Sabathia, too, will miss the Red Sox series, and it's probably just as well, considering his ERA in four starts against them this season is 7.14. But if he can continue showing the improvement he has over two of his past three outings, he could still be an important weapon down the stretch.

But none of it will matter if the Yankees don't have a good weekend at home starting Thursday night, when Ivan Nova (8-4, 2.88), their best pitcher of late, faces Jake Peavy (11-5, 3.91) in the series opener.

Andy Pettitte, also improving recently, gets the ball on Friday against Felix Doubront. David Huff, replacing Phil Hughes in the rotation, goes Saturday against Lackey, and Kuroda finishes up Sunday afternoon against Jon Lester.

And in all four of those games, the focus had better remain on baseball, not beanball.

Rodriguez did not appear in the postgame clubhouse Wednesday night to share his thoughts on the next four rounds of this 19-round slugfest, but he made his point on Aug. 18 when he homered off Dempster four innings after taking a fastball off the elbow, sparking his team to a 9-6 win.

The Yankees are 11-5 since that game, and a lot of people have credited the team's outrage at Dempster's beanball as a turning point of the season. In fact, the season had begun to turn about a week earlier, when the Yankees won five of seven games from the Tigers and the Los Angeles Angels.

They didn't need a brawl or a beanball war to win those games, and they won't need it to win these games.

All they need to do is continue to play the kind of baseball they've been playing lately, the kind that mixes in timely hits with the occasional home run -- Robinson Cano welcomed White Sox starter Erik Johnson to the big leagues by hitting one nearly to River Avenue in the first inning –- and the kind of stingy pitching they have gotten for most of the season, especially from the back end of their bullpen, Wednesday night's eighth-inning scare notwithstanding.

That is why nearly every Yankee asked about facing the Red Sox this weekend neatly sidestepped the issue of carryover from last time, or the possibility of a resumption of hostilities.

"I expect some tense games and I'm hoping we come out on top," Robertson said. "We need to win, so I don't think we're really going to be focusing on that too much. Winning ballgames is what counts right now."

"We're not looking to do that," Cano said of the possibility of any extracurricular activity on the field this weekend. "We're just going to go out there tomorrow, play the game the right way that we have always been, and what's in the past we're going to keep in the past."

Girardi said he had no intention of addressing the issue with his players, nor did he expect any pre-series warnings from the umpires of major league baseball.

"I think all our guys understand what's at stake here," he said.

Really, there's very little at stake for Boston aside from the chance to put the kibosh on what is shaping up as an exciting last three weeks of the season for the Yankees.

And there is nothing to be accomplished by seeking revenge for the Yankees except the likelihood of self-sabotage.

Baseball, and baseball only, should be on the menu this weekend, and may the better team win.

Asked what he expected to see this weekend, Gardner said, "Typical New York-Boston. I'm sure tomorrow will be at least a four-hour game. We've been fighting for our lives all season, and now it comes down to this. We've got to win."

He meant the ballgames, not the fight, which for the Yankees can only turn out to be a losing proposition.

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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