Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 24, 2015

The Brooms Are Out In The Bronx

Three times in three days the 4 train charges north from Midtown, passing underneath the Harlem River before ascending toward the sky and the familiar stop above 161st Street and River Avenue. Three times in three days a return train will begin the journey south a few hours later, back toward the skyscrapers that dominate the horizon. In between each round trip the Yankees will play the Orioles, a division rival who arrive in town in second place, looking to dent the home team’s four game lead. The All-Star break is over, and the second half of the longest season is underway.

It is the traditional, if statistically inaccurate reference to that portion of the schedule played after the Mid-Summer Classic. Most teams play their 81st game a week or more before the All-Star break, and by now the game count is approaching the century mark. With the non-waiver trading deadline fast approaching at the end of July, the season comes to its annual flex point. Nothing is settled, for with more than two months and sixty-plus contests still to play, leaders can fall and also-rans rebound.

But the early days of small sample sizes and dismissing records as merely the products of merely a fast start for good ones or of just being slow out of the gate for bad are long past. Yes the Red Sox could still win 88 games, the minimum required last year to qualify for a Wild Card playoff berth. But to do so they would have to win two-thirds of their remaining contests, outstripping the major’s best winning percentage to date by a wide margin. And yes the Cardinals, the team with that best record, could still miss the postseason. But that would require St. Louis to suddenly sink to depths currently populated only by the woebegone Philadelphia Phillies.

So while all outcomes are still possible some are no longer very realistic, and the picture is starting to come into focus. For the Yankees and their fans, the view is surprisingly pleasant. Dismissed by most pundits during Spring Training as a non-contender with an aged offense and a questionable rotation, New York has fought its way to the top of the AL East. The starting pitching, while hardly dominant, has been adequate thanks to plenty of run support. The bullpen, the one perceived strength from the start, has lived up to its billing. The surprisingly potent offense has increased by more than half a run its average runs scored per game over 2014. Strong performances by Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, two veterans from whom little had been expected, have bolstered the cause. Perhaps most surprisingly given the roster’s age, the Yankees have remained relatively healthy through the season’s first four months.

Of course all that could change in a moment, which explains the nervous anticipation in the stands as the first game gets underway. Series like this one against Baltimore are doubly important. The Yankees play a clear majority of their remaining games against AL East teams. Each such contest provides the opportunity to not only improve one’s own record, but to push a direct rival down.

As if to prove they understand the moment’s import, the Yankees waste no time in getting on the board. Jacoby Ellsbury leads off the bottom of the first with a ground-rule double, moves up a base on a sacrifice bunt by Brett Gardner, and races home on a fly out by Rodriguez.

Midway through the 2nd inning the game is interrupted by the shortest rain delay on record. With dark clouds overhead and the wind gusting, the grounds crew races onto the diamond and maneuvers the tarp over the infield. But they no sooner have it settled into place than the signal is given to take it back up. Unfazed by the odd interruption, New York opens with three straight hits to plate another run, and the lead remains 2-0 until the 6th.

Nathan Eovaldi pitches well through five frames, at one point setting down eight Baltimore batters in a row, but in the 6th he yields three singles and a run; then the Orioles tie it on another single off reliever Justin Wilson. But in the bottom half light-hitting shortstop Didi Gregorius manages a two-out single, and second baseman Brendan Ryan follows with a shot down the left field line. Running on the pitch, the speedy Gregorius scores all the way from first to put New York back on top. The visitors manage a base runner in both the 7th and the 8th, but the setup men do their job and finally closer Andrew Miller works a perfect 9th to seal the win.

One night later the Yankees again strike quickly. Ellsbury again leads off with a double, and this time Gardner singles him home. Then Teixeira sends a lightning bolt into the right field seats for his 24th homer of the year. In the 3rd Baltimore’s Ryan Flaherty gets pulls his team to within one with a two-run home run off of Ivan Nova, but New York answers two innings later when A-Rod sends a long blast into the seats in left. Baltimore is down to its last out against Miller in the 9th when Chris Davis lofts one to right that just clears the wall. But the closer buckles down and fans Johnathan Schoop on three pitches to preserve another one-run victory.

The rush hour subway trains were packed for the trips to the two night games on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday’s finale is on a getaway day schedule, and the early afternoon start means there is room to spread out as the 4 train rolls up the East Side. But while some are late to arrive in the end nearly 47,000 will count as the biggest crowd on the three game set. Fans understand the importance of these division games just as well as the players.

After two tense affairs the Yankees give their faithful a chance to relax. On a day when the second through fifth men in the order go a combined 1 for 15, others take a turn in the spotlight. Ellsbury continues his hot streak in the leadoff spot, stroking three hits including a homer while driving in four runs. Gregorius and backup catcher John Ryan Murphy also have three hits each, and third baseman Chase Headley adds a pair along with three RBIs. Even second baseman Stephen Drew, he of the .180 average, doubles home a run. The Yankees plate four in the first while the stands are still filling up, and just keep pouring it on. By the 5th it’s 9-1, while Masahiro Tanaka rolls through the Baltimore batting order. He leaves with two out in the 8th, having yielded just five hits. The only point of concern is that three of them are solo home runs and the other two are doubles.

But in the wake of a 9-3 rout and a sweep of the team that came to town as the Yankees closest pursuer in the division, such concerns are the stuff for another day. The three wins move New York twelve games over .500 for the first time in more than two years. The cautionary note all year long has been that the AL East is a weak division. But New York’s record would put them atop the NL East as well, and in second place in every other division, with a firm grip on a Wild Card spot. Three times in three days the subway headed north, trips buoyed by hope but anchored in angst. On the final trip back to my hotel and the waiting drive home, I know that nothing has been settled with more than two months still to go. But the picture is starting to come into focus, and a sweep in the Bronx has Yankee fans liking what we see.

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