The Yankees badly needed to salvage a split of their 2-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg. (Sorry for saying yesterday that it was a 3-gamer. I'm not used to 2-gamers followed immediately by 4-gamers. It happens, but not very often.)
Hiroki Kuroda was on the mound, which was encouraging. But he didn't have his best stuff: 6 innings, 4 runs, 8 hits, 2 walks.
Trailing 1-0 going into the top of the 4th, the Yankees needed runs, and needed them soon. They got the runs. Wait, that didn't come out right...
At any rate, Derek Jeter led off the inning with a single -- part of a 3-for-5 night that raised his batting average to .319, his on-base percentage to .370, his OPS to .806, his OPS+ to 117 (matching his career average), and his career hit total to 3,270. Did somebody say he was through? Washed-up? Done? Not worthy of a big contract?
After Nick Swisher flew out, Robinson Cano drew a walk. And then Alex Rodriguez showed he is back, sending a line drive to left for a double. Career hit Number 2,875, double Number 510, RBI Number 1,938.
Next up was Russell Martin, he of the sub-.200 batting average. He doubled home Cano and A-Rod. 3-1 Yankees.
But Kuroda couldn't hold the lead, allowing a 2-run triple to Ben Zobrist in the bottom of the 5th. Martin came up in the 6th, and got his 2nd extra-base hit of the game, his 15th home run of the season. But Kuroda allowed a Luke Scott homer in the next inning. Did Luke use the Force, or did Mr. Scott beam it up?
It was 4-4, and it sure felt like this was another one the Yankees would let slip away, as they let so many slip away in these 7 weeks in which their AL East lead went from 10 games to completely gone, a flat-footed tie with the Baltimore Orioles, with the Rays hot on both teams' heels. There was the consolation that the O's were losing to those pesky Toronto Blue Jays, but it wouldn't matter a whole lot if the Yankees couldn't beat the Rays.
I posted this on Twitter: "If Girardi goes apeshit with the bullpen in this game too, I'm gonna belt him so hard it'll FIX his nose!"
Then came the top of the 7th. This is one of those innings that will really stand out if the Yanks beat out the O's -- or the Rays, for that matter -- by just 1 game. Andruw Jones led off with a single. Ichiro Suzuki was sent in to pinch-run. Steve Pearce, who started the game at 1st base, singled Ichiro over to 2nd. Jayson Nix, playing 2nd base (the aching Cano was the DH), bunted the runners over.
Tie game, one out, runners on 2nd & 3rd, the next 3 batters are Jeter, Swish and A-Rod. Gotta like your chances.
Rays manager decided to make a pitching change. He took out starter Matt Moore and brought in Kyle Farnsworth.
Kyle Not a Darn's Worth! Kerosene Kyle! How ya like your chances now?
Oddly enough, Farnsworth was not responsible for what happened next: Jeter hit a grounder to 2nd, where Elliot Johnson was waiting. Except Johnson threw the ball away! Both runners scored, Jeter reached 2nd.
That was it for the scoring, as Boone Logan, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano allowed just 2 baserunners (a walk by Logan and a single by D-Rob) over the last 3 innings. Yankees 6, Rays 4. WP: Kuroda (13-10). SV: Soriano (36). LP: Moore (10-9).
So, with the Yankee win over the Rays, the Jays' win over the O's, and with 26 games left in the regular season, heading into a huge 4-game series with the O's in Baltimore, the AL East looks like this:
The Yankees are 77-59, 1 game ahead of the O's, 2 1/2 (3 in the loss column) ahead of the Rays (who do have a game in hand), 15 (16) ahead of the Boston Red Sox, and 16 ahead of the Jays.
Elimination numbers: Sox and Jays both 11, Rays 24, O's 26.
If the current MLB standings were to hold to the end of the season, the Playoff matchups would be as follows:
In the American League, the O's would visit the Oakland Athletics -- a Playoff matchup that hasn't happened since 1974 -- for the Wild Card. If the O's win it, they would play the Texas Rangers, who would have home field advantage (matchup has never happened in the postseason), while the Yankees would have HFA over the Chicago White Sox (also has never happened). If the A's win the Wild Card berth, they would visit the Yankees (last happened in 2001), while the White Sox would play the Rangers (has never happened). The Rangers have HFA throughout the AL portion of the postseason.
In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals would visit the Atlanta Braves (last happened in 1996). If the Cards win it, they would face the Washington Nationals (the Nats' first trip to the postseason, though they played the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers as the Montreal Expos in the 1981 Playoffs), with the Nats having HFA, while the San Francisco Giants would play the Cincinnati Reds (for all of both teams' trips to the postseason, this matchup has never happened in it), with the Reds having HFA. If the Braves win, they would play the Reds (who would have HFA), while the Nats would have HFA over the Giants.
The Yankees go into this series leading by 1 game.
Sweep: Yanks lead by 5.
Win 3 out of 4: Yanks lead by 3.
Split: Yanks lead by 1.
Lose 3 out of 4: O's lead by 1.
Get swept: O's lead by 3.
Trailing by 3 with 22 games to go wouldn't be the worst position in the world. With an average of 26 games left, there are still 8 teams in the AL that are no worse than 3 games out of the 2nd Wild Card spot: The Rangers, Yanks, A's, O's, Rays, ChiSox, Anaheim Angels and Detroit Tigers. And 7 teams are no worse than within a game and a half of the 2nd NL Wild Card: The Nats, Reds, Giants, Braves, Cards, Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Still, with this being the last series of the year between the two teams, and only one more series this year against the Rays, a 3-gamer the following weekend in New York, the Yankees need to stand up and take it to their opponents in these 4 and those 3.
Here's how the pitching matchups shape up for this series, the most crucial series between the Yankees and the Orioles since October 1996:
Thursday night (tonight), 7:05: David Phelps vs. Jason Hammel.
Friday night (tomorrow night), 7:05: Phil Hughes vs. Wei-Yin Chen.
Saturday night, 7:05: CC Sabathia vs. Joe Saunders.
Sunday afternoon, 1:35: Freddy Garcia vs. Zach Britton.
That doesn't look all that promising, except for Saturday. But you never know.