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The Fight for the AL EastPosted on September 5, 2012 at 05:07 AM.
The American League East race is actually like most predicted. At the beginning of the season, it figured to be a three team scrum for two or three playoff positions. The only change is that the Orioles are playing the role of one of the three contending teams, taking the place of the Boston Red Sox. For a while, it looked like the Yankees were going to win the division without a fight. With a 10 game lead on July 18th, the Yankees looked as if they were unbeatable.
The 162 game season is the great equalizer.
Because of the length of the Major League Baseball schedule, streaks and slumps can alter the perception of a pennant race at any given point. It certainly did in July. The Yankees and the Rays are two vastly different teams in terms of style. However, their respective strengths and weaknesses counteract each other enough to make them comparable opponents. As powerful as the Yankees are, the Rays have one of the best pitching staffs in the league. The Yankees were never, in theory, 10 games better than the Rays.
The two teams played to a virtual draw for the first two months of the season. The Rays were 29-22 to begin the year while the Yankees compiled a two month record of 27-23. Injuries hit the Rays in the worst way as Evan Longoria was sent to the disabled list. Desmond Jennings missed time. Carlos Pena has been lost at the plate all season and is one of Baseballís worst regulars in 2012. They werenít a great offense to begin with, but with the loss of key players, the offense was anemic. Yet, the Rays persevered and managed to tread water until they could get healthy. The Rays were 25-28 for the next two months while missing their star player.
Meanwhile, the Yankees were healthy and were firing on all cylinders. They went a ridiculous 20-7 during June to break away from the pack. Because the Rays and Orioles were playing .500 ball during the month of July, it didnít matter that the Yankees were also playing .500 ball. Their lead was seemingly insurmountable.
But, injuries began to hit the Yankees. First it was Andy Pettitte. Then, Alex Rodriguez went down. They seemed to survive as the pitching staff continued to throw well and Eric Chavez became one of the best value signings of 2012. Injuries continued to mount for the Yankees. Nick Swisher missed a few games. Mark Teixeira battled injuries. Even CC Sabathia got hurt. Ivan Nova went to the disabled list. Then Teixeira really got hurt. Even the largest payroll in the sport canít compensate for so many losses. Even then, the Yankees did finish August with a 15-13 record.
All along, the Orioles just kept lingering. Like the Rays and Yankees, the Orioles played close to .500 baseball in June and July. Their hot start allowed them to linger. They didnít have that poor month all season. The Orioles treaded water for for different reasons. Their rotation was a mess. Immediately, the organization began a shuttle to the minor leagues, eventually replacing three of the five members. They are finally getting good pitching in August; the result was an 18-9 record. The ten game deficit shrunk.
August saw the Rays finally get healthy. It also saw them finally exploit their real strength--their pitching. The staff only allowed 69 runs all month. As the Yankees went into their tailspin on August 20th, the Rays and Orioles have won. The Yankees have won just four of their last 14 games, while the Orioles are 10-4 and the Rays are 8-7 during that span.
The idea that the Yankees are choking is just perception rather than the reality of their season. A team that chokes is one that is healthy, but just stops winning. It is not a team that has to deal with injuries to its ace, its cleanup hitter, its fifth hitter, its third starter, and its fourth starter. They are simply going through the same thing the Rays went through two months ago and the same sort of fluctuation with their pitching staff that the Orioles went through.
As the final weeks of the season approach, the American League East is exactly as predicted. It is the closest division race in the sport with three teams fighting for the crown. The Yankees and Orioles face off four times to conclude this week at Camden Yards. The series will go a long way in determining a division winner. The Yankees also have four more games against the Rays. But, the remainder of their schedule involves the Blue Jays, Twins, and Red Sox after they play the Aís in Yankee Stadium. The remainder of the schedule looks like an advantage for the Yankees.
Meanwhile the Rays have six games remaining against the Orioles, including the final three of the regular season against them and four more against the Yankees. They also have four games in Chicago against a White Sox team that is fighting for a division title, while also having to play three against the Rangers. They do have the most difficult out of division schedule in September.
The Orioles play their next six games against the Rays and Yankees. But, their remaining schedule includes a six game west coast trip against the Aís and Mariners, who have had the leagueís best record since July. Although there is no way to quantify it, there is something said for momentum. The Orioles are the hot team. There is quite a bit of belief.
With the just 1.5 games between first and third place in the division, the AL East is heading to the close finish that was predicted. The Rays will have to continue their trend of dominant pitching to combat their brutal schedule. The Yankees have to get healthy. Alex Rodriguez is back. Mark Teixeira may be back next week. Given their pitching struggles, they are said to be rushing Andy Pettitte back. But, their most important player is CC Sabathia. Sabathia has pitched well as he is 4-1 with a 3.38 ERA and a 9.0 K/9 rate in his last 8 starts. But, the Yankees need more. Their power can come and go; their lineup can get healthy, but CC Sabathia must carry them if they have a chance.
As for the Orioles, their key is Zach Britton. After giving up 20 runs in three starts, Britton has been one of the best pitchers in the game. In his last four starts, he is 4-0 and has allowed just three runs in his last 24 innings. His emergence is far more important than any other development with their club. The Orioles have received solid performances from Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman. If Britton can remain hot, the Orioles can, for the first time this season, pitch against any team. There is reason to believe.
Major League Baseball will be hard pressed to get another final night like they did last season. But, it may just get another photo finish. The American League East promised to be the most difficult division in the sport and it has delivered. After 136 games, the division is a tightly contested with every game played having meaning. The Yankees are trying to overcome what the Rays did earlier. Two evenly matched teams along with a surprising Orioles team are providing one of the best pennant races in Baseball. They have been all season, despite their ups and downs.
Major League Baseball has gotten it right. With two Wild Cards at stake and the current format, the incentive of winning the division is greater than ever. This race will literally go down to the last possible day. This is not a result of a Yankeesí choke. It is a product of the Major League Baseball season that allows for natural ebbs and flows. Itís now time to enjoy the final month of what promises to be a tremendous pennant race between three quality teams.
You couldnít ask for more.
So, OSers, how does it all play out? Iíve said the Rays will win the division since the Spring, so Iím sticking with them. Who is in? Who is out?
BORN: April 17, 1975 (38)
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