Revitalized Yankees playing for control of their playoff destiny
Their recent three-game sweep of Boston notwithstanding, the Yankees would still need a minor miracle to catch the Red Sox in the AL East...
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Their recent three-game sweep of Boston notwithstanding, the Yankees would still need a minor miracle to catch the Red Sox in the AL East.
That's not to say Yankees miracles, minor or major, have never materialized before to haunt the Red Sox. Just ask them. But these Red Sox have too much quality starting pitching, and too many games with Tampa Bay and Baltimore (11 out of their final 26), to give the Yankees much of an opening.
Yes, the Yankees also have a ridiculously easy schedule (13 of their final 26 against the Devil Rays, Orioles and Royals), but with just three games left with the Red Sox, they don't have control of their destiny. Not yet, anyway.
Meanwhile, anyone who still gives the Mariners a chance to catch the Angels in the American League West either didn't watch last week's utter domination by the Angels, or they are the most incurable M's optimist on the planet.
It's looking more like the Yankees or Mariners will need to slip into the side door of the playoffs as the AL wild card — no disgrace, considering the noble history of second-place finishers in recent postseason play.
That reality, in turn, makes the three-game series between Seattle and the Yankees that begins Monday at Yankee Stadium the latest (but not the last) crucial showdown for the Mariners.
They'd better hope this one goes better than last week's Safeco debacle, although it's hard to imagine how it could be much worse.
They will be facing a Yankees team that has completely revitalized its season after falling into the depths in the first half. On May 29, after a 3-2 loss to the Blue Jays, the Yankees stood 21-29, tied with Tampa Bay for last in the AL East and 14 ½ games behind the Red Sox. The Bronx was burning — with outrage.
From that point, through the Red Sox sweep, the Yankees went 54-30 (.643) to surge past Seattle into the wild-card lead. The prospect of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993 no longer seems a fait accompli for the Yankees, though general manager Brian Cashman remains appropriately nervous.
"We haven't accomplished anything, as far as I'm concerned," he said in a phone interview. "We're still fighting for our lives, and until we cross the finish line as one of the four playoff teams, I don't feel secure."
Such is life under Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose mental acuity has come under some question recently but who still is said to convey to Cashman on a regular basis his intolerance of losing.
A finish out of the playoffs is an unacceptable outcome for the Yankees, but not an unprecedented one, contrary to the knowledge of kids under junior-high age.
"I've seen both ends," said Cashman, who before taking over as GM in 1998 served the organization in various other capacities starting in 1986. "I was here when we lost almost 100 games back in 1990 [a 67-95 season]. We were a perennial second-division club, watching October on TV.
"I know how real and possible that is any given year. Ultimately, you have to earn your way to October, and we haven't done that. I'm hoping at some point to say we have."
If they do, Cashman can pinpoint the impetus. He immediately cites one key factor in the Yankees' resurgence: the awakening of five left-handed batters in their lineup. That would be Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Robinson Cano, all of whom struggled early in the season for various reasons.
"We got healthy, and our five lefties started to hit," Cashman said. "For a long time, we were offensively challenged, for some reason. It was a head-scratcher. In the first half, A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], [Derek] Jeter and [Jorge] Posada were the only ones swinging, but now the five left-handers have joined the party."
So have a succession of dynamic young arms — starters Phillip Hughes and Ian Kennedy and reliever Joba Chamberlain — that represent a sea change in Yankees philosophy.
With Steinbrenner giving Cashman more or less carte blanche over personnel decisions in recent years, the Yanks have stopped relying so much on huge free-agent singings and more on the farm system. They have produced Cano, Melky Cabrera and Andy Phillips in past years, and outfielder Shelly Duncan this year, along with the rookie pitchers.
Cashman steadfastly refused to include any of those young pitchers in potential trade-deadline deals, which would have been almost a given in previous seasons.
"Our philosophy now is to turn within before we look outside," he said. "If someone steps up and takes advantage of that opportunity, good for us, and good for them."
Despite the Mariners' recent struggles, Cashman expressed admiration for their rebirth this season, which he didn't see coming. Not, he says, because he doubted the Mariners' ability, but because he makes it a rule in the offseason not to assess the fortunes of teams outside the Yankees' division.
"I know with Ichiro and Felix Hernandez, they have one of the best position players the game has seen, and one of the best young pitchers in the league," he said. "That certainly makes it easier to build around. Most people are dying to find talent like that and fill around it."
Added Cashman: "Seattle has had a remarkable season, but the thing about the American League is, it's unfortunate only four teams are allowed to be to the playoffs. Some good teams are going to be on the outside looking in. I know we don't want to be that team, and Seattle doesn't want to be that team."
The Mariners and Red Sox, however, aren't the only teams standing in the Yankees' way. Also looming in their rear-view mirror are the Tigers, who stunned New York in the Division Series in four games last year en route to the AL pennant, much to Steinbrenner's ire.
And after the Mariners get through with the Yankees, the Tigers will be awaiting them for a three-game series in Detroit.
It, too, will be crucial.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.