Are the Yankees playing to win division, or just to get into playoffs?
For all practical purposes, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays have already clinched playoff berths, so wide are the gaps between the two best teams in baseball and the teams chasing them with less than three weeks remaining in the season. All that's left to decide is playoff seeding.
But after digesting last night's sublime opener to a three-game series between the AL East rivals -- a game that featured a fabulous pitching duel between New York's CC Sabathia and Tampa Bay's David Price, before the Rays pulled out a 1-0 win in 11 innings -- it was hard not to come away with one overriding thought: The Rays look like they are playing to win the division, but the Yankees do not.
How else to explain why, in a game in which the leads for both the division title and race for home-field advantage in the playoffs were at stake, the Yankees had mop-up man Segio Mitre on the mound for the decisive sequence in the 11th inning, while closer Mariano Rivera and the more trusted set-up men David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain went unused?
Actually, the Yankees did try to explain it, but the explanations fell flat. Robertson and Chamberlain were "unavailable," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said after the game, because of overuse issues -- even though Chamberlain had not pitched since Friday and had pitched just twice in the past eight days. (Robertson, on the other hand, had thrown 36 pitches on Saturday, the second of back-to-back appearances.) As for Rivera's non-usage, the Yankees said they didn't want to bring him into a tie game on the road -- preferring to hold him back for a potential save situation -- even though they did exactly that Friday night in Texas.
The Rays, meantime, left no doubt they were playing to win, backing up Price's brilliant start with closer Rafael Soriano and top set-up men Joaquim Benoit and Grant Balfour.
If the Yankees are content to back into the playoffs as the AL wild card, it makes some sense on at least one level. As the AL East champ, as things stand now, they would be matched against the Texas Rangers in the Division Series -- the same Texas team that just swept the Yankees over the weekend. As the wild card, however, the Yankees would face the Minnesota Twins, whom they swept in the first round last October and against whom they are 4-2 this season.
The Yankees will never admit they are playing simply to hold onto a playoff spot -- the Steinbrenner ethic demands a singleminded focus on championships -- but their actions are doing it for them.
September 14, 2010; 10:44 AM ET
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