By Joe Passantino
Less than two months ago, the New York Yankees had a 10-game lead in the AL East. They were cruising on all cylinders, confident that they were on their way to their 15th division title in 17 years. The other teams were long in the rearview mirror, and it seemed as though the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays could only reach the playoffs through the dubious double wild card spot.
Not so fast. Suddenly, that 10-game lead has completely evaporated, and the Yankees find themselves with the O’s breathing down their necks for first place in the East and Tampa Bay not far behind.
So how did this happen?
Fans and critics of the team alike have come up with various theories. Of course, the injuries have been a large factor: the Yankees have lost such key players as Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez for prolonged periods of time, not to mention Mariano Rivera for the entire season. Credit also has to be given to the O’s and Rays for staying in it as long as they have.
However, there’s something else that many have failed to consider: This team just doesn’t have much life in it.
It is a team full of old men. 38-year-old Derek Jeter is playing like he’s 28, but he’s the exception to the rule. Many of the others have either gotten injured, like the aforementioned three, or are just having bad seasons. Russell Martin is batting around .200, while Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones have played far too much to cover for another injury (Brett Gardner’s).
Not to say that the team is mailing it in, but it seems as though they lack hunger and desire. Just watch the way Robinson Cano runs down to first base — when he hits a ground ball that he thinks is an out, that’s the end of it — he doesn’t bust his rear end down the line trying to turn it into a hit. That exact attitude personifies the team at the moment: the game seems to be over when they get down a few runs, and even when they do make a comeback, they seem to fall one hit short.
Where are the late inning heroics that fans who followed the 2009 championship team got so used to? Where is the energy? Where is that feeling that, if Rodriguez or Curtis Granderson comes up in a big spot, they are going to come through rather than strike out?
While the titanic Yankees rested on the laurels of that 10-game lead, the young Orioles worked their tails off to get back into contention. They are everything the Yankees should be. They can match the big boys in power and pitching. This past Thursday, they allowed the Yankees to come back from a five run lead, and then shut them down the very next inning by hitting three home runs.
That is exactly what the Yankees need to do to the Orioles and Rays throughout the rest of the season if they still want to win this division. They need to shut them down by doing what the Yankees do best: finding ways to win. They need to do what they can to overcome the injuries. If they cannot, then they may end up in one of those two wild card spots, and be forced to put their entire season in the struggling Sabathia’s hands.
The next time the Yankees have the bases loaded in the ninth inning, down by two runs, whoever is up has to get that hit. They cannot keep falling just short. If they do, they may end up falling just short of another AL East division title. And, if they lose the wild card game, they’ll fall just short of the playoffs.