November 4, 2009 – Up 7-3 after seven and one-third innings, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi tells journeyman reliever Dámaso Marté to take a seat. Though it’s only the eighth, Girardi calls for his closer, Mariano Rivera. Rivera retires five of the next seven hitters, and like that, the Yankees win their 27th World Series.
Capturing the 2009 championship seemed to signal to the world that the Yankees would be back for good. But that wasn’t the case. For the past two seasons, it’s been not the Yankees, but the Rangers, who have captured the pennant and represented the American League in the Fall Classic. And while 2009 may not feel like the distant past, for the winningest team in professional sports history, three years removed from a chance at the title is quite a long ways.
The 2012 Yankees are a team on a mission: to bring a title back to the Bronx. Standing in their way, of course, is an uncertain future: two more months of regular season play, a divisional series and a league championship series – and that’s just to make it back to the grand stage. Recognizing that this is a prospective exercise, let’s take a look at what the Yankees have in store, just what they’ll have to conquer to make it back to what any pinstripe loyalist will swear to you is their spot in the limelight.
The Regular Season
There are 40-plus games left in the regular season: that’s seven weeks of baseball. In those seven weeks, the Yankees have 15 series of opponents left. Ten are games against division rivals. The others are against the Rangers, the White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Oakland A’s and the Minnesota Twins.
At least two of those five teams, and possibly three, will likely make the postseason. Coupled with the fact that both Baltimore and Tampa Bay are putting up real resistance in the division—since each holds the inside track to a playoff spot as of press time—the Yankees face one of the toughest season-ending schedule stretches in all of Major League Baseball.
The Division Series
It’s an old truism in baseball that good pitching beats good hitting. As it happens, neither the Yankees nor the team that looks most likely to be their A.L. Division Series opponents, the Chicago White Sox, has done much of anything from the mound this season.
Two AL East teams—the Rays and the Orioles—lead the race for the two Wild Card slots. This means that the Wild Card team will come from the east coast and will presumptively play the AL West champion: the league leading, two-time pennant defending Texas Rangers. Which means that when everything shakes out, the Yankees will likely face themselves lined up against the AL Central champion: presumptively, the Chicago White Sox.
The Yankees are 11th overall in team ERA this year, and the White Sox are 15th. This doesn’t bode well for either team. However, the Yankees are undeniably one of the best offensive teams in baseball, holding steady in third place for most runs scored and first place in slugging percentage. Barring catastrophe, the Yankees should find themselves well positioned to challenge again for the AL title.
The Championship Series
The Yankees may doubtless be one of the best offensive teams in baseball, but they aren’t the best. That title, almost assuredly, belongs to the one team that’s had the Yankees number in recent years: the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers beat the Yankees four games to two in the 2010 American League Championship Series. In the 2011 ALCS, they beat the team that beat the Yanks: the Detroit Tigers. This year, the Tigers are looking to threepeat, and with the most potent offense in the bigs at their disposal–they lead the majors in runs scored and batting average, and they are second in OBP and slugging–they just may.
It’s hard to say who will emerge from the AL this year. Will it be the Yankees? Will it be the Tigers once more? Or will some other squad emerge as the proverbial Kings of the Hill as October winds to a close?
At the moment, nobody knows. As those old baseball sages say, that’s why they play the game. But one thing is for certain: the Yankees and their fans have a good idea of what obstacles the team will need to overcome to return to the promised land.
Will Joe Girardi call upon Rivera’s replacement Rafael Soriano in some eighth inning evening in the crisp, early days of November?
Time will tell.