Yankees No Longer Automatic

Is it October? From the way Yankees manger Joe Torre sounded, any Yankee fan couldve easily mistaken it for something hed say in the playoffs.

“If you don’t pitch, it’s such a helpless feeling,” Torre said following Tuesday night’s 19-1 loss. “We certainly are better than this and we need to be better than this if we’re going to stay in (it).”

Since when did the Yankees play a baseball game in July that actually meant anything? In recent memory, they havent. The Yankees have dominated the American League for the past decade, and the AL East played its familiar tune, lulling New York to sleep between the months of April and October.

The Yankees would race out to their customarily large lead, playoff tickets would unofficially go on sale in April, the Red Sox would crumble, but still hold on long enough to secure the wild card berth. Half of the American League playoff picture was settled before the season even started.
But, this year, the script is quickly unraveling — someone forgot to tell the AL Central that they were only supposed to send one team to the playoffs.

Suddenly, the Detroit Tigers are the new Yankees of the American League, obliterating any foes that come their way. Suddenly, the Yankees are seven games behind the White Sox for the wild card. Suddenly, the Yankees are no longer a lock for the postseason, sitting a full three games behind the Red Sox.

Needless to say, New York isn’t going through its customary summer slumber, and I can’t say that it’s a bad thing, because this is how a regular season should be. For too long, the Yankees avoided the unknown and the mysterious. Getting to the playoffs was a foregone conclusion. Winning the World Series was the objective.

Now, the playing field is leveled. The Yankees are just as vulnerable to the ups and downs that every other team in the league experiences in a long regular season, exemplified by their recent four-game set with the 39-45 Cleveland Indians. In the past, the Indians were a team the indomitable Yankees would roll over. They would drop anchor, pound the inferior opponent, and listlessly make their way toward the postseason.

Instead, the Yankees had to scratch and claw their way to a split, which included the second most lopsided loss in team history. While Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson did their jobs, the bottom half of the Yankee rotation continued to cause concerns, as Shawn Chacon, who played savior for the Yankees last year, didn’t make it out of the third inning.

Now, the Yankees are just your typical team, capable of ugly losses and sub-par performances. Alex Rodriguez can’t shake the boo-birds. Johnson has been horribly inconsistent. There still isn’t a reliable bridge to Mariano Rivera. The entire starting outfield from the beginning of the season is out with injuries. Robinson Cano is out for the foreseeable future. The farm system has been decimated by years of playing for the present.

And now, there’s added pressure with the wildcard. Detroit continues to prove doubters wrong by winning, which means that the Yankees will need to overtake either the Red or White Sox, neither of which is an easy task given all the injury problems to their offense, and the ineptitude of their starting pitching. And, don’t look now, but Toronto has quietly hanging behind the Yanks and Red Sox, not to mention Minnesota, which is one of the hottest teams in baseball. Both are only two games behind the Yankees.

It was hard to blame the Yankees for wanting to hit the fast-forward button to October in years past. They were the superior team with a hall-of-fame rotation and a potential All-star at every position. But, now, Chien-Ming Wang, Jaret Wright and Chacon are key starters, and last nights outfield consisted of Aaron Guiel, Bernie Williams and Melky Cabrera none of whom will be playing in any All-star games anytime soon.

At Yankee Stadium, scoreboard watching has become more important than ever. Instead of casually following the Red Sox, knowing that the two teams would probably meet in the playoffs, its more than possible this year that the Yankees could be sitting at home come October.
Perhaps there is a winning streak coming soon. The All-star break will allow the Yankees to rest their ailing roster and depleted bullpen. Around this time last year, the Yankees were still chasing down the Red Sox, and still ended up winning the division. But this year figures to be different. There’s too much parity, and too much talent on other teams to take their position with respect to the rest of the American League lightly.

Besides, finally, the Yankees are making the summer interesting.

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