When ESPN polled 15 of their experts before the season and asked which team would win the American League East, four of them chose the Toronto Blue Jays, and none of them chose the New York Yankees. Experts at FOX Sports buried the Yankees as well (too old, they said), and ESPN’s Grantland picked them to finish last in the division.
But it’s the Yankees, right now, who hold onto a slim lead in the American League East. In fact, for a while, that lead looked almost untouchable.
The Blue Jays changed all that when they made a trade deadline push to acquire more talent, swapping SS Jose Reyes for the better-hitting Troy Tulowitzki and upgrading their pitching by adding LHP David Price. Before they made the first of those blockbuster trades, the Blue Jays were all the way back in fourth place. Then they went on a tear that included a three-game sweep of the Yankees in the Bronx. As of this writing, the Jays are just half a game back of the Bronx Bombers, and Toronto’s squad shows no signs of slowing down. If the Blue Jays can pull off their comeback, some of those ESPN experts might start looking a lot smarter (though not the ten who picked the currently third-place Orioles, or the one who, unbelievably, picked the Red Sox).
Of course, there’s still hope for the Yankees, but they’re running out of time to make the adjustments. Here are three things that need to happen for the Yankees to maintain their grasp on the division lead.
The Yankees’ bats need to heat up again
Just a week ago, the Yankees’ bats were as hot as the Blue Jays are now. The Bronx Bombers are ice cold now, managing only seven hits and scoring just one run over the entire three-game series against the surging Blue Jays. Compare that to the four games between July 31 and August 4, when the Yankees scored a dozen runs or more in three out of four games.
The Yankees don’t need to hit double digits in every game, but they do need to start making adjustments and hitting in the way that we’ve come to expect. Starting pitching isn’t the Yankees’ strength (in particular, they’re short on starters who can go deep into games), so they’re just not going to win a lot of low-scoring match-ups. They need their bats back, and they need them badly.
Joe Girardi needs to manage his pitchers better
Joe Girardi caught a lot of flack for his pitching management in the Blue Jays series, and rightfully so. On August 7, he pulled Andrew Miller after just 6 pitches in the 9th and instead stuck a totally overmatched Branden Pinder in for the 10th inning against the heart of Toronto’s order. Pinder promptly gave up a home run to Jose Bautista, and the Yankees lost.
The following day, Girardi left Ivan Nova in the game too long, which led to a breakout inning by the Blue Jays in the 6th. They scored 4 runs in that inning, and eventually beat the Yankees 6-0.
It’s not Girardi’s fault that his starters need to be replaced so early in games, but it is his job to juggle his relievers. He needs to trust his best relief pitchers for more than six pitches, precisely because he cannot trust his starters for very long.
The Blue Jays need to regress
This isn’t within the Yankees’ control, but it’s also nearly inevitable. The Blue Jays are 11-1 (.917) since the trade for Tulowitzki, and their only loss came on Tulo’s day off. Nobody plays like that for a whole season (the modern-era record actually belongs to the Yankees, with 1998’s .704 win percentage). The Yankees don’t have to play .900 ball to stay ahead of the Blue Jays; something like .600 ball would be enough, if luck catches up with the red-hot Blue Jays.
Of course, all the luck in the world won’t help unless the Yankees can improve in a couple of key areas. Whether or not they’re up to the task will be something we find out over the last couple months of the season.