I want to be excited about tonight's Yankees/Rays game. I want to be pumped about the clash of the two best teams in baseball, separated by a half-game in the standings, with two of the best pitchers in the AL squaring off in the opener. I want to be invested in the outcome, either as a Yankee fan since childhood or a professional writer for about half that time. I want to believe.
I can't do it. The game just doesn't mean very much. I have no doubt that the players on both teams will go all out to win, and I am sure that Joe Maddon and Joe Girardi would rather win than lose, but I know the history. We have 16 years of evidence that suggests that teams that have locked up postseason berths treat winning the division rather than being the wild card as something nice to have, rather than something necessary.
Let's go back a year, to Joe Girardi's first time front-running as a manager. During a late-season West Coast trip, the Yankees' lead in the AL East had been shaved from nine games to five over less than two weeks. With the lead at six games, the Yankees' last game on the trip came in Anaheim, a getaway Wednesday afternoon game. Girardi sent A.J. Burnett to the mound. Burnett struck out 11 over 5 2/3 innings, then was pulled after surrendering a run on two hits and a walk in the sixth. Damaso Marte was called on to retire Chone Figgins, and did. Girardi went on to use Jonathan Albaladejo and Phil Coke to pitch the seventh, and Ian Kennedy — injury-riddled starter prospect making his first MLB appearance of the year — to protect a one-run lead in the eighth. Girardi stopped messing around in the ninth, getting Mariano Rivera in for the save. The entire pattern, though, screamed, "I really don't care about the outcome of this game." This is one example of many, by Girardi and by Joe Torre before him, of the Yankees putting preparations for October ahead of wins in September.
What about Joe Maddon? In 2008, his Rays had a big lead on the Yankees for the wild card, while locked in a close battle with the Red Sox. It's not quite as cut-and-dried, as he seemed to place some value on the Rays winning the division for the first time in their history. The rotation stayed in place (but for some movement due to the schedule) down the stretch, and his lineups remained mostly intact. His bullpen usage is hard to evaluate as he was changing things on the fly to account for the loss of Troy Percival. The changes he was making were in an effort to win games, not to keep players fresh.
The experience of 2008, though, is likely to inform 2010. The Rays have a division title under their belt, and that achievement won't nearly be enough this time around. Home-field advantage in the '08 postseason wasn't terribly important; they went 5-3 at home, and while they did win Game Seven at home against the Red Sox in the ALCS, they lost Game Six (and for that matter, Game One) in the same setting. Maddon's rotation features one starter, in David Price, headed well past his previous usage, and two others who have very recently been on the disabled list. His bullpen, a significant strength, is anchored by two hard-throwing right-handers with extensive injury histories.
I have no doubt that everyone wants to win, and that everyone will say all the right things. Both these managers know, though, that where they play games in October is much less important than who plays them and the condition they're in when they do. I'll watch tonight — well, at least until Padres/Rockies at 8:40 ET — and I'll appreciate the greatness of two left-handed starters and try and gauge just how many people have made it to St. Petersburg and think about how poorly the Yankees match up against good left-handed pitching.
I just won't confuse it for a real pennant race. That's what we're getting in the National League, and that's what going to get the blood pumping and the keys clacking throughout September.