New York Minute

August 31, 2009 1:00 PM

Yankees Coasting to Division Title

We all know there have been teams that have blown leads in September as the pennant races heat up in Major League Baseball.
The Mets did it just two years ago, when the Phillies came back from seven behind with 17 to play to steal the National League East division title. In 1964, the Phillies blew a big lead and lost the National League pennant by a game to the St. Louis Cardinals.
But don’t expect that to happen to the Yankees this year.
Heading into the final 32 games of the season, the Bronx Bombers have a commanding six game lead on Boston in the American League East race. They have 32 games left in the season, but the way the Yankees are playing, they would need a total collapse for the Red Sox to catch them. It’s not going to happen. Neither manager Joe Girardi nor anbody else on the team will say it, but this race is over.
There are some issues worth monitoring as the team heads down the stretch.
The most critical one is their pitching as the Yankees try to get their rotation set for the postseason. CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are a formidable frontline, but Sabathia’s postseason history is not good (2-3 with a 7.92 ERA in five starts) and Burnett has not thrown a postseason pitch in 11 years in the majors. No one knows how he’ll do in October.
Andy Pettitte (14-9 postseason, 3.96 ERA) has a good history, but he’s not the lock that he was in his prime. The fourth starter will likely be Joba Chamberlain, and good luck trying to figure out what the Yankees have planned for him. He pitched three innings yesterday, giving up two runs and four hits, and wasn’t even in long enough to get the victory. The way the Yankees seem to be tinkering with the Joba Rules on the fly, there is no way to ascertain how effective the right-hander will be during the postseason.
The Yankees seem to have steadied their bullpen by inserting Phil Hughes into the set-up role for Mariano Rivera (36 saves, 1.83 ERA). If the starters are effective in getting the ball to Hughes, the Yankees will be fine. If they have to rely on other pitchers to get key outs in the sixth and seventh innings, they could be in trouble.
The other issue the Yankees will face is a difficult September stretch. They have six games left against a Tampa Bay squad that is fighting to make the playoffs. They also have a six-game trip to the West Coast that includes three games against the Angels, who have given the Yankees fits over the past few years. They also have three games at home against Boston in late September, and the Red Sox won’t concede the division easily.
With six games each against Baltimore and Toronto, and games against Seattle and Kansas City, the Yankees should have a big enough cushion to secure the division title.
That will put them back into the postseason after a one-year hiatus, and with them, that’s what will determine whether this season was ultimately successful. The Yankees can’t afford another early exit, and nothing less than a World Series victory will satisfy an ownership that has paid handsomely to win its 27th championship.
The division title may be within reach, and for some teams, that may be enough. The Yankees need to do more. October will be the time for the ultimate judgment on this team.

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