By all reports, the U.S. Open is over, but looking at the American League East standings, I have to wonder. Ever since the Orioles tied the Yankees for first place last Tuesday, the two teams have been volleying the division lead:
Wednesday: advantage NY
Friday: advantage NY
Sunday: advantage NY
Monday was an off day for both teams, and now, after the Orioles stomped the Rays 9-2 (RECAP | BOX) and the Yankees lost to the Red Sox 4-3 on a walkoff single by Jacoby Ellsbury (RECAP | BOX), the two teams are back to deuce. Those see-saw standings result from the fact that neither team has won or lost consecutive games since Monday and Tuesday of last week, but what's more telling is that the Orioles haven't lost consecutive games since August 16 and 17, going 15-7 since, while the Yankees haven't won consecutive games since August 14 and 15, going 9-15 since.
After going 4-6 in three straight series against the teams nipping at their heals in the AL East, this week's three-game set against the dismantled, last-place Red Sox was supposed to give New York a breather. However, Boston's last hope to salvage some positive feelings from this season is to play spoiler to their hated rivals in this and the teams' season-ending series in the Bronx in October. The two remaining stars in the Red Sox's lineup, Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, rose to the occasion Tuesday, going a combined 7-for-9 with all four Red Sox RBIs, including a game-tying homer by Pedroia in the sixth and Ellsbury's walkoff single.
You've surely seen this bit of trivia elsewhere by now, but the Yankees, who led the East by 10 games on July 18, are just the ninth team since 1900 to blow a 10-game lead, and the only one of the previous eight that rallied to finish in first place was the 1928 Yankees, who were one year removed from a team often mentioned as the greatest of all time, the '27 Yankees. This year's Yankees bear no resemblance to that team, and before you point out that one of the three teams to blow a 10-game lead in the Wild Card era won the pennant (the 2006 Tigers) and that the extra Wild Card gives the Yankees an additional safety net, note that the '06 Tigers didn't have to win a one-game playoff just to get to the Division Series. Also, the Yankees are currently two games behind the Wild Card-leading A's in the overall standings, just two games ahead of the Rays, whom they host for three games this weekend, and just 2 1/2 ahead of the Angels, despite the Halos losing to the A's again Tuesday night (RECAP | BOX).
The odds are still in the Yankees' favor, but whereas Clay Davenport's Postseason Odds gave the Yankees an 89.5 percent chance of winning the division on the morning of Aug. 31, that figure had dropped to 71.7 percent as of Tuesday morning, and that was before they fell back into a tie with Baltimore. Meanwhile, while their chances of making the playoffs at all had fallen from nearly 98 percent to shy of 90. Take into account the fact that statistical projections largely dismiss the Orioles' success based largely on their having been outscored on the season (though they're well into the black in the second half), and the Yankees' chances would seem to diminish even further.
It's worth remembering how hard the Yankees have been hit by injury this year. Their top offseason acquisition, would-be sophomore starter Michael Pineda, never threw a pitch for them. Early in the season, they lost left fielder Brett Gardner, one of the game's top fielders and basestealers, and Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time. They have been without Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira for long stretches, with the latter currently out indefinitely after reinjuring his strained left calf in Baltimore on Friday night. They have seen CC Sabathia hit the disabled list twice, saw Andy Pettitte make a miraculous return from retirement only to suffer a broken ankle, and more recently had starter Ivan Nova effectively lose his rotation spot to rotator cuff inflammation.
Still, the Orioles won't shed any tears for their wealthy neighbors to the north, as they've had similar experiences with free agent starter Tsuyoshi Wada, who also hasn't thrown a pitch this season due to Tommy John surgery, leadoff man Nolan Reimold, who was lost for the season at the end of April, and veteran Brian Roberts, whose comeback from two seasons ruined by post-concussion syndrome was cut short by a torn hip labrum. Mid-season addition Jim Thome remains out of action and has played just 18 games for the O's, Nick Markakis suffered a season-ending broken thumb when he was hit by a Sabathia pitch on Saturday, and first-half ace Jason Hammel left Tuesday's game in the fourth inning complaining of the same stabbing pain he felt prior to his July surgery on the joint.
Per the Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly, Hammel will have his knee looked at by a physician on Wednesday and is hoping to have an MRI as well. Given that the knee did not swell up, Hammel is hoping the pain was just scar tissue breaking up, a distinct possibility, but admitted that it was "scary" to feel that pain again. With the starting rotation having keyed the Orioles' second-half legitimacy and Chris Tillman still out of action due to elbow stiffness (though he did throw a successful bullpen on Tuesday afternoon), the health of Hammel's knee could be a major factor down the stretch. In other Tuesday night action, the Tigers returned serve against the White Sox, winning 5-3 behind a strong start from Doug Fister (RECAP | BOX). That score is significant as it marks just the second time since this month that the Tigers have scored five or more runs. The win only pulled the Tigers within two games of the Central Division lead, but given that they'll be starting Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander against the White Sox over the next two days and have an easier schedule than their rivals thereafter, they're actually in a great position, provided, of course, that the lineup can build on Tuesday's showing.