Monday, August 17, 2009

Division Crown Within Reach

It would be easy to lament the Yankees' 10-3 loss to the Mariners Sunday and the missed opportunity to gain yet another game on the Red Sox in the AL East, but it's simply silly to get upset over every loss.

No team can win every game, no matter how good -- just ask the 1998 Yankees.

The reality is that the Yankees have done everything they've needed to do -- and more -- since sweeping a four-game series from the Red Sox a week ago. They've won five of seven to move 7-1/2 games ahead and may -- let me re-emphasize that -- may be a week away from locking up the division with a three-game series looming this weekend at the Red Sox, who now trail the Rangers in the wild card by a half-game.

More importantly, the Yankees won three of four in Seattle, including Saturday's 5-2 victory in which Sergio Mitre actually pitched almost decently, to begin the first of the two second-half West Coast trips that many Red Sox fans believed would lead to the demise of the Bombers this season.

Mitre (2-1, 6.04 ERA) allowed two runs -- one earned -- on seven hits and two walks in 5-1/3 innings, his longest outing in the majors this year. Though he did not have a single clean, 1-2-3 inning, he worked out of trouble and threw the ball pretty well.

The bullpen worked 3-2/3 scoreless innings after Mitre left and the offense had enough firepower, scoring four in the second, highlighted by Nick Swisher's two-run homer, and an insurance run in the ninth on a Derek Jeter homer.

Unfortunately, the Yankees couldn't finish the sweep Sunday as Joba Chamberlain continues to struggle since being removed from his regular turn in the rotation. Joba allowed four runs on seven hits and three walks in five innings in taking the loss.

In his last three starts, beginning with his outing against the Red Sox after being pushed back two days, Joba has allowed 12 earned runs on 18 hits and 12 walks in 16 innings. The issue isn't the Yankees' desire to nurture and protect Joba's 23-year-old arm by limiting his innings, it's the way they are doing it.

It appears that Joba is a rhythm pitcher. He needs to work quickly and aggressively in games and he needs to pitch every fifth day. Moving Joba out of that regular turn seems to have messed up that rhythm and has me believing the Yankees would have been better off setting his inning limit as a start at about 140-145 before moving him to the bullpen for the rest of the year and finding someone else to be the fourth starter, including the playoffs.

Still, Joba left Sunday's game trailing just 4-3 before Alfredo Aceves and Chad Gaudin came apart in the seventh as the Mariners struck for five runs to make a winner of Doug Fister, who allowed three runs in seven innings.

Unfortunatly, the loss spoiled Nick Swisher's 20th homer of the season (not bad for someone who was acquired for Wilson Betemit) and Jeter's three-hit game, moving him past Luis Aparicio as the all-time hit leader among shortstops.

But now it's on to a week that has to be the potential to put an end to the division race. The Yankees play three in Oakland beginning today before they head to Boston. And with A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia both set to start twice with Andy Pettitte getting Friday's series opener against the Red Sox, the Yankees couldn't have their pitching set up better.

If they manage to take 2 of 3 in each series (NOTE: this is different than winning 4 of 6 overall) that means they will do no worse than maintain that 7-1/2 game lead and with five weeks left in the season. That would all but end the division race.

And given that the Yanks have won 23 of 30 since the All-Star break, you have to like the odds of that happening.

Runners In Scoring Position
Saturday
1-for-4 (.250)
Sunday
0-for-3 (.000)
Season
284-for-1,093 (.260)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
68-for-274 (.248)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
219-for-821 (.267)
Vs. Red Sox
20-for-126 (.159)

Up Next
Monday at A's, 10:05, YES
Burnett (10-5, 3.71) vs. Brett Tomko (1-2, 5.23)

Yes, that's the same Tomko whom the Yanks DFA'd earlier this season ... and he has not been pitching well.

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