May 18, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL East
While watching the Yankees slog through a six-game losing streak last week that involved three one-run losses, a shutout, a blowout, and a disgruntled designated hitter, I found myself thinking of the seminal scene in Anchorman in which the news crews from San Diego’s various stations duke it out in an abandoned lot. “Boy, that escalated quickly,” Ron Burgundy says. “I mean that really got out of hand fast.”
A week ago, the Yankees were 20-13, one game up on the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East. Today, after a badly-needed win over those AL East-leading Rays in Tampa Bay, the Yankees are 21-19. They’re a mere half a game ahead of both the Red Sox and Blue Jays and are two back of the Rays. The win last night gave the club a reprieve after a bad week, but their problems aren’t going away.
On these pages, BP’s New York contingent has devoted many a pixel to the Yankees and their Posada Problems. Steven Goldman noted that long-term contracts will hinder the Yanks. Jay Jaffe explored Brian Cashman transformation into a loose cannon as his own impending free agency looms. Those storylines will stay with the Yankees for the better part of the season, whether they win or lose. Their play over the last week, however, will not.
During their six-game losing streak, the Yanks as a team hit .227/.311/.360 and left a stunning 49 men on base. Their pitching, meanwhile, was equally abysmal. The club’s hurlers threw to a 5.27 ERA and allowed 12 home runs while walking more than five per game and striking out a hair over six. That slump won’t last. The Yanks are still the same club that has averaged over five runs per game, and their lineup features, on paper, a balanced attack from top to bottom.
The lineup's problems during the losing streak, though, started at the top. Derek Jeter, coming off of a two-home run game last weekend in Texas, went 3-for-26 during the six-game slide. He was on base just five times, and only a ninth inning hit last night kept his on-base percentage above .300 on the season. Alex Rodriguez fared only marginally better. He went 4-for-25 and reached base just six times. His two home runs last night could be a harbinger of a hot streak to come, but the Derek-and-Alex tandem has been showing its age rather than its Hall of Fame pedigree.
For the rest of the AL East, the Yanks’ slide represented a time to capitalize. The Orioles picked up two and a half games on the Bombers; the Red Sox, who earned a sweep in the Bronx this weekend, gained four games on New York; the Blue Jays picked up five games; the Rays opened up a two-game lead. With over 120 games left, the division turned over and compressed within the span of seven games.
It’s always foolhardy to write a team’s obituary in April or even May, but the Yankees have to view this six-game losing streak, a rarity in the club’s recent era of success, as indicative of a lost opportunity. They have gone 1-5 against the Red Sox this season and have seen a Boston club that started the year 2-10 go 19-10 over their last 29 games. The Rays have been even better, and with Jose Bautista launching home run after home run, the Blue Jays seem poised to be a thorn in the sides of the AL East powerhouses.
Ultimately, a six-game losing streak isn’t a surefire sign of a bad team, just as a 2-10 start isn’t necessarily indicative of a bad one. For the Yankees, though, this week’s streak revealed some of the tensions that riddle the aging $200-million club, which the powerful Curtis Granderson and the streaking Brett Gardner can carry only so far.
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The Red Sox used the Yanks’ slide to reach a psychological milestone. With their 7-5 win over the Yanks on Sunday night, they finally reached the .500 mark, and with their 8-7 win over the Orioles on Monday, they finally cleared .500, 41 games into the season. A good team won’t stay down forever.
The Red Sox, though, are not without their problems. John Lackey, battling a sore elbow and some seemingly serious health issues facing his wife, has landed on the disabled list. He was 2-5 with an 8.01 ERA before landing on the shelf, and his K:BB ratio is an ugly 1.06. Daisuke Matsuzaka was placed on the DL with an elbow injury as well. Boston’s depth will be tested in the coming weeks.
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The seemingly unstoppable Rays used the Yanks’ losing streak to build up some breathing room in the AL East. They went 4-3, dropping two out of three to the Orioles before splitting a two-game set with the Yanks. They did, however, send a message to the Indians, the AL’s surprise of 2011. The Rays went into Progressive Field and took three out of four from Cleveland in convincing fashion.
The Rays are taking full advantage of their strength in the early going. Their pitchers have allowed just 155 runs, best in the AL East, and while the Legend of Sam Fuld has diminished of late, Matt Joyce is now 15-for-his-last-35. He has reached base in 20 of his last 41 plate appearances and has knocked out four home runs over his last 10 games.
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Up in Toronto, Jose Bautista continues to be the focal point of the season. After missing nearly a week in early May with a sore neck, Bautist has hit .400/.475/1.057 over his last 40 plate appearances. He has launched seven home runs in his last eight games and has 16 on the season. He has become a one-man wrecking crew north of the border.
The Blue Jays have built up a quiet six-game winning streak on the backs of their pitchers, as well. The club has given up just 17 runs over the past six games, and the Jays’ impressive team ERA of 3.82 has been lost in the barrage of Bautista bombs. The club’s 8.53 K/9 over the winning streak is an impressive feat in itself.
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Even the fifth-place Orioles hopped on the victory bandwagon this week. Baltimore put together a 4-2 week against the Mariners, Rays, and Red Sox. Jake Arrieta and Zack Britton turned in a few nice pitching performances as the club’s previously anemic offense put up a respectable .763 OPS. At 19-21, the Orioles remain a long shot to overcome four teams and a four-game gap, but signs of exciting baseball are beginning to emerge in Camden Yards.