Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 19, 2021

With Playoff Drama Building, The Yankees Wilt

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.  It is the contemporary slang version of an age-old lament, the plaintive cry of those who realize too late actions that might have produced a more desirable outcome than the one that has just been experienced.  With the longest season entering its final fortnight and the onset of autumn at hand, one can’t help but think that from the front office down to the last man on the bench, members of the New York Yankees will soon be chanting the phrase as a mantra to a lost campaign, even as they face the bleak prospect of a long and bitter winter.

Like an ill-trained mutt, that possibility has been nipping at New York’s heels for most of the current campaign.  But the persistent annoyance finally sunk its teeth through four and seven-game losing streaks as August gave way to September, spirals that undid the gains of the thirteen straight victories that they followed.  And now the wound is bleeding after a less than ideal start to the season’s penultimate home stand.

With MLB returning to the playoff format in place since 2012, after a one-year expansion of its postseason bracket for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Wild Card races are the source of most of the excitement in the Great Game’s final month of play.  While no team atop the standings has yet clinched its division, four of the six leaders appear to be in prime position.  Barring a collapse on the order of the 1964 Phillies losing ten in a row from September 20th onward, the Brewers, Rays, White Sox, and Astros are all going to the postseason as division champions.  But of the four Wild Card slots – a pressure-packed prize since it guarantees the squads that earn it just a single, do-or-die game – three remain hotly contested. 

Either the Giants or Dodgers will be one of the National League Wild Cards, which will surely seem unfair to at least some of that team’s fanbase.  San Francisco and Los Angeles have the two best records in the majors, but because they cohabitate in the NL West, one franchise will see its efforts rewarded with only a must-win contest against an opponent that may well be playing free and easy as a decided underdog.  The role could be filled by one of five different teams.  The Cardinals occupy the second NL Wild Card spot as this is written, but the Phillies, Reds, and Padres are all right behind St. Louis, and Philadelphia hasn’t ceded claim to the NL East title, as it trails Atlanta by only one game.  Should the Phillies close on a hot streak, Atlanta could wind up traveling west for the postseason’s opening contest, or out of the playoffs entirely.   

The race is even more unsettled in the junior circuit, where both Wild Card slots remain up for grabs.  Five AL squads comprise the list of contenders – Boston, Toronto, Seattle, Oakland, and New York.  The Yankees climbed all the way to the top of that list during their August hot streak, but after a second straight drubbing at the hands of a sub-.500 Cleveland squad on Sunday, New York is in fourth place in the AL East and outside the playoff picture, exactly where it was more than a month ago, just when new arrivals Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo and Andrew Heaney helped the team seemingly turn the corner.

The new energy brought by the trade deadline acquisitions has dissipated, with Gallo slumping until the last few days and fans dreading the sight of Heaney heading for the pitcher’s mound.  In its place is a malaise that has been part of this roster’s makeup since Opening Day, an inability to put away clearly inferior teams.  The Yankees arrived back in the Bronx after dropping the final contest of a three-game set in Baltimore.  The loss prevented a series sweep, and left New York with a season record of just 11-8 against the woeful Orioles.  While Boston and Toronto each have three games remaining against Baltimore, the eight losses by New York are just two less than the number of defeats to the Orioles by the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays combined this year. 

Still, with the weak hitting Cleveland franchise coming to town, fans had reason to hope, and Friday night the “good” version of the maddeningly inconsistent Yankees sent their faithful home happy.  Five balls off New York bats sailed over The Stadium’s outfield wall, and both starter Corey Kluber and two relievers pitched effectively as the Yankees rolled to an 8-0 victory.  Less than 48 hours later, after back-to-back performances by the “bad” Yankees, Friday night’s joy was but a distant memory.

Saturday’s matchup was a tight affair through four frames, with the only run belonging to the visitors.  Then, with the leadoff batter retired, Cleveland left fielder Oscar Mercado swung under a slider from New York’s Luis Gil, sending a foul pop straight up in the air just behind home plate.  It was a routine chance for catcher Gary Sanchez, save for the harsh reality that nothing is routine for him when it comes to defense.  He settled under the ball and appeared ready to make the catch, until at the last moment Sanchez realized he was out of position and lunged for the plummeting sphere, which bounced off his glove.  Gil then hit Mercado with the next pitch, so instead of two outs and no one on base, the Cleveland offense had a man on with only one out.  The cost of the error was far more than just a base runner, though.  By the time New York reliever Albert Abreu managed to end the inning, Cleveland had plated seven runs.  Heaney followed from the bullpen, surrendering three more scores in an eventual 11-3 rout.

In his postgame comments Yankees manager Aaron Boone conceded that the play was one his catcher was expected to make, but assured fans that the team would quickly turn the page behind Gerrit Cole, who was on tap to start the rubber game of the series on Sunday afternoon.  And why not?  New York’s ace is a Cy Young contender, while Cleveland was starting Eli Morgan, who took the mound with a 2-7 record and an ERA hovering around 6.00. 

Except that in New York’s moment of need, its star pitcher delivered perhaps his worst effort of the season.  Cole was hammered for seven runs in just over five innings, while Morgan pitched like the award winner, holding the Yankees to a single score through six frames.  The bullpen did no better in Cole’s wake, with the 11-1 final score even worse than Saturday’s.

Gary Sanchez should have caught the popup.  Gerrit Cole could have delivered a dominating performance befitting a team’s ace.  And the failure of either or even both players would have been less consequential had New York manhandled the AL East’s doormat the way its division rivals did all year.  In the closing days of yet one more season that began with such promise, such is the sad lament of a franchise that is now perilously close to once again letting it all slip away.

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