On July 18, the New York Yankees were 10 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and 10.5 ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. Almost no one would have thought the Yankees would have trouble winning the division, but on Sept. 11 they're in a dogfight. Not even a playoff spot is assured.
With the Yankees one up on the O's and two on the Rays, and with the Oakland Athletics half a game better than the Yankees while in position for a Wild Card spot, October baseball in the Bronx is no certainty if the Bombers don't finish their last 22 games strong.
With Mark Teixeira possibly out for the season with a calf injury and Curtis Granderson working his way back from a hamstring injury, as well as a terrible slump, the offense has struggled. Ace CC Sabathia appears to be pitching hurt, and who knows what they can expect from Andy Pettitte if and when he returns.
Their destiny is in their hands, with a lead in the division and three games left against both the Rays and the Athletics. But it won't be easy.
Still, they are in good shape. But if the Yankees do continue to struggle, and if they do ultimately miss the playoffs, the slump that erased a 10 game lead in 44 games between July 18 and Sept. 4 and then missing out on October would be a worse collapse than the Red Sox's late-season collapse in 2011.
The Yankees have a chance to recover from their blown lead and still make the playoffs. The Red Sox didn't have that; they lost their lead on the last day of the season so they never had the chance.
The lead the Red Sox lost was statistically worse than that of the Yankees. They lost a nine game lead in the last 24 games of last season, but once they lost the lead, the season was over. We'll never know what would have happened if the Red Sox had almost a month left of baseball to fight it out with the Rays for the last playoff spot, but we will with the Yankees in 2012.
That the Yankees still have a chance to make the playoffs after blowing a lead to a team with a payroll about 40 percent the size of the Yankees' would make missing the playoffs even more embarrassing.
Second, if the Yankees miss the playoffs, it will mean that they didn't claim either of the two American League Wild Card spots.
The change in playoff rules for 2012 changes the standard of what it means for a team to have made or missed the playoffs. With an extra team making the playoffs in each league, it is much easier to make the postseason. That makes it worse for the teams that fail to miss the playoffs, particularly a team that has a double-digit game lead late in the season.
If the current system was in use in 2011, the Red Sox would have made the playoffs. But a Yankees collapse would mean missing the playoffs even under this system.
Hopefully Yankee fans will never have to argue with their Red Sox counterparts about which collapse was worse: the 2011 Red Sox or the 2012 Yankees. The Yankees still have three weeks of baseball to play, a lead in the division and a second playoff spot as a safety net if they lose the division. But those three factors would also make missing the playoffs all the more embarrassing for Yankees Universe.