As we saunter toward the midway point of the Major League Baseball season, one thing appears to have happened right under all of our noses. There has been a power shift in the Eastern Division of the American League.
A division that has been dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox for years is currently led by the until-now perennial doormat Baltimore Orioles. As of today the Bombers are in third place in the division, 2.5 games behind the O's, thanks to their recent five-game winning streak.
While it's certainly too soon for complete predictions of how the division will shake out, these are series that could go a long way in determining where the Yankees stand at the end of the season.
As I said before, the Yankees have been able to climb the standings a little bit due to their recent winning streak (it's remarkable how often those two coincide). However one thing that will be key in continuing their winning ways is momentum.
If the Yankees can continue this momentum into their upcoming series with the crosstown rival Mets, they will have sustained success over more than what someone might call a hot streak and they will have beaten a bitter rival who is having a nice season of their own.
Despite early predictions that this year's Mets team would be little more than hopeless, the Mets have stormed out to a 27-21 start to the season, with only the even more shocking Nationals (more on them in a moment) sitting in front of them atop the National League East.
The Mets have enjoyed a strong start to the season by a number of their starting pitchers. Starters Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Jonathon Niese, and Dillon Gee, have accumulated a 3.76 ERA over 230.2 innings pitched over 38 starts, according to FOXSports.com. That means that these four pitchers are averaging just over six innings a start and when you get consistent quality starts from the majority of your rotation, it makes winning that much easier.
The Yankees will need to win this series if they want to begin the summer on a high note. The Mets have shown that they are a far better team than anyone anticipated they would be and to take a series from them to kick off the summer would be a huge boost for the Bombers.
Coming off the heels of their series against the Mets, the Yanks will travel down to Atlanta for three games against the Braves. What many American League fans may forget is that while the utter lunacy that occurred on the last day of the season last year did result in the Red Sox completing an epic collapse to miss the postseason, the same thing happened to the Braves last year, as they lost out on their playoff spot to the eventual World Series Champion Cardinals on the last day of the season.
So far this season the Braves are 26-23, and while that is only good enough for fourth in the newly competitive N.L. East, they are only four games behind the division leading Nationals. They have the talent in both the rotation and the lineup to be competitive with any team in the league.
The reason I have them on this list as well as the Mets, is because the Yankees have traditionally picked up a good number of wins during interleague play. However this year they will be facing off with the Braves and the Nationals as well as the rival Mets.
While they've enjoyed beating up on the Astros and the Pirates in years passed, the Yankees won't be able to hide behind their huge payroll when they start playing these very young and very talented teams.
The series at the beginning of July against the Rays will be important because it's one of the last that they will play before the All-Star break. Taking the series from the Rays right before heading into the second half of the season will be huge for the Yankees.
If they find themselves struggling come the end of June, a great way to pick themselves up again would be to get a good win against a division rival heading into the break. Not to mention it would give them a nice little boost before heading into their next series...
I hate to be redundant, but the final four games of the Yankees first half is a four-game series that takes place over three days in Boston, with a double header on Saturday.
Everything that was true about the Tampa series is doubly true for this one. Contrary to popular belief, the All-Star break doesn't actually occur at the exact halfway point of the season. That means that by the time the Bombers are playing their last two series before the break, they will already have begun the second half of their season.
Division games are paramount in the second half, especially when you play them back-to-back against your two biggest rivals. The reasoning for this series is the same with all the others, momentum. The Yankees will need to take two games of this series at least. By this point in the season, while there will be enough time to possibly make up any big gaps between them and the division leader, these are the games that you'll look back on at the end of the season.
If the Yanks can't take two of three from the Rays and three of four from the Sox, they may be kicking themselves for it at the end of the season.
If this series were played today, I would hardly bat an eye, as it would just be a series between two third place teams in their respective divisions. However, the reason I've added it to this list is because I don't see the Tigers sticking around in third place for too long.
While I don't expect Justin Verlander to go on the warpath he did last year, there is far too much talent in that clubhouse for this team to be under .500 for long. I'm guessing that by this point in the season, both teams will be in the thick of their own division battles and four games are going to make a huge difference either way.
If all that wasn't enough it will also be a high-tension rematch of last year's ALDS, so at the very least we can hope for a bench clearing or two.
When you mix this timing with what I assume will be a desperate situation for both of these teams where they are battling for a playoff spot, you're going to get some fireworks.
In the past few seasons we've been treated to some pretty amazing late season series between these two teams and I don't think this year will be any different. If I had to guess I'd say that the Yankees will enter this series as the team on the outside looking in, while the Red Sox will be in the drivers seat for a playoff spot.
A couple wins either way could make a huge difference when all is said and done.
It's been a long time since the Orioles were playing meaningful baseball this late in the season, and it may be a stretch to say that they will be, but if they are, this is going to be a huge series.
If the Orioles are at all in range for a playoff spot, you better believe that they will be gunning for any division team in their way. I imagine they'd practically be foaming at the mouth for an opportunity to drive a nail into the Yankees proverbial coffin.
Meanwhile the Yankees will probably be in a similar situation, fighting to try and keep their playoff hopes alive.