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September 8, 2005

Fading Hope
by Larry Mahnken

I don't know why the Devil Rays have the Yankees' number this season. The Yankees are superior to Tampa Bay in pretty much every facet of the game, and while the D-Rays should be able to put up a good fight every now and then, it shouldn't be a constant battle for the Yankees like it has been.

The Yanks won the first game they played against the Devil Rays this year, scoring 13 runs in the second inning and winning 19-8. They lost the next day.

Heading into St. Pete for a four-game series in early May, the Yankees were looking forward to rebounding from their 10-15 start against a team that had lost 7 straight. They had to score 3 runs in the eighth to break open a 6-2 win, and the next day they lost 11-4, then 11-8 and finally 6-2. The Yankees would have to salvage their season against Oakland and Seattle.

They next faced the Devil Rays at home, coming off of a 6-0 run, and were promptly shut down by Casey Fossum, losing 5-4. They had to come back from 10-2 down in the fourth and score 13 runs in the 8th to win 20-11, but it had no carryover -- they lost the next two games 5-3 and 9-4.

It looked like they were finally going to get it done in St. Petersburg when they won behind Jaret Wright on August 15th and took a lead into the bottom of the ninth with Rivera on the mound on the 16th. But a guy in Yankees gear pulled a double over the wall for a home run, and the Yanks went on to lose in extra innings 4-3, and fell 7-6 the next day as a burnt-out bullpen was unable to hold onto the lead.

Tuesday the Yankees again blew it, losing a game they should have walked away with 4-3, and last night it appeared that once again, they were going to lose to a team they had no business losing to. Jason Giambi pulled their asses out of the fire, and they won 5-4 after trailing 4-0 two outs into the game.

5-10, that's what the Yankees have done against the second-worst team in the American League, a team that would be the second-worst in all of baseball if not for the Yankees. If you want to point to a single reason why the Yankees won't win the AL East, that's it. It's not their failure to hit in clutch situations, though they have failed to do that, it's their failure to beat the teams they should beat. Against the best teams in baseball, they've played like an elite squad, against the worst teams they've played like an average squad. It's wholly unacceptable.

And the Yankees won't win the AL East, not that it matters much. Their battle is to get into the playoffs -- simply to hold their ground. Catching the Red Sox requires the Yankees to play spectacular baseball down the stretch. If they go 14-10, then Boston has to go 10-14, which isn't likely considering Boston's schedule, or the fact that the Yanks have 4 left against the Devil Rays. It could happen, but don't count on it.

It'll be hard enough holding off the Indians, who play the Royals 7 times down the stretch, as well as 3 games against the Devil Rays. Oakland and Anaheim could also threaten the Yankees' playoff chances, but Cleveland is the biggest threat. And making the playoffs is all that matters. Division titles are nice, but all it wins you is home field advantage for no more than two games that you may never need to play. As the Wild Card, the Yankees would face the White Sox rather than A's or Angels, and match up much better against the White Sox than they do against the two West Coast teams, particularly the Angels. What does winning the East garner the Yankees? Bragging rights? You really think Red Sox fans care that they didn't win the division last season? Or would have cared had they won the division in 2003? That's not what they're playing for.

It'd be nice to win the division. It's nice enough to know that Dan Shaughnessy was wrong, that this race is not a runaway, but then Dan Shaughnessy is always wrong. It's important to make the playoffs. In fact, that's the only thing that matters.