Things are not going well for the New York Yankees. They've only won seven of their last 20 games, and a once-strong lead in the AL East has slowly dwindled. The Bronx Bombers now face a fight to the death for first place in the division.
The Yankees are locked in a tie with the Baltimore Orioles, of all teams, for first in the division. The Tampa Bay Rays are also lurking a mere two games behind. The Yankees might even miss the playoffs at this rate.
As of right now, the Yankees are fighting for their lives. Their postseason hopes are on the line, as is their reputation. Just think of the headlines and mass panic that would ensue if the Yankees didn't make the postseason.
Although things are looking bad now, this situation is actually preferable to having a nice, comfortable lead. Big leads tend to give false security. That security quickly disappears in the playoffs. When it comes down to it, teams face do-or-die situations on the road to the World Series. Close divisional races provide practice for those intense playoff scenarios.
Sure, the Yankees and their fans would rather have a nice lead atop the AL East. But let's look at the silver lining here—the tribulations the Yankees are going through now could pay off later on.
I'm sure one of the first things that the Yankee players heard when they were kids is that "practice makes perfect." That saying definitely applies here.
Each game they play from now until the end of the season matters. One loss could potentially mean missing the playoffs, while a singular win could guarantee them a spot.
From now on, the Yankees have to treat every game like it's a playoff game. They need to play as if they might not be able to play tomorrow.
The Yankees still have some time to win the AL East, but each game matters now. These do-or-die situations will certainly help prepare the Yankees for the playoffs.
In the playoffs, the atmosphere is much different and the stakes are much higher. However, at this juncture in the playoff race, the stakes are nearly as big. A loss now might mean not playing the next day. The Yankees' season is on the line, and will continue to be on the line during the playoffs.
They might as well get used to that now.
I kind of danced around this with the last slide, but didn't really flat out say it.
These tight races and tough fights keep players sharp and on their toes. Nobody wants to see their team take a lead for granted and start getting lazy.
When players' wits aren't sharp, it could lead to playoff destruction. There's no way a heavy-set and out-of-shape Batman is going to defeat a Bane who's at the top of his game. The same thing applies to baseball.
Fans and writers talk about the rust that players accumulate while on the DL. Sitting on the bench or playing meaningless games has the same effect.
A RISP situation is different when your team has already clinched the division title than if your team is down to the last game of the season and a win means a playoff spot.
Hitters in the first situation are gunning for stats. Hitters in the second scenario care about what happens to the team.
There are certainly some players who always gun for stats, while there are others who only care about the team's performance. The point is that players react and perform differently in different situations.
A dull player is also going to react and perform differently than a player who's sharp. Even if this race goes down to the wire, at least the Yankees will be able to stay sharp along the way.
Nobody wants to face the unknown. If you asked a random person whether they would like to stay inside their house and be content their entire life, or take a step outside and risk whatever the outside world might hold, most of the time the person would choose staying inside.
After all, why do people stay in towns where all their friends are rather than moving to a faraway place for a higher paying job?
Even athletes are prone to this. There are some players who chose to play only in their hometown or stay with one team their entire career.
Tangent aside, the Yankees are most likely going to face either the Baltimore Orioles or the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs. These are teams they've played against numerous times in the past. There are individual players on those teams who the Yankees have seen countless times.
This late in the season, the Yankees, for the most part, know these teams inside and out. They know James Shields' strengths and how to get Adam Jones out. The execution of that is a different story, but at least they have a game plan to work with.
An air of familiarity surrounds these teams. Then there's always the 'we've-beaten these-guys-before-so-we-can-do-it-again' mentality. No team wants to risk their season playing against a team they've never beaten.
Losing a lot of games late in the season during a playoff race can hurt the team's morale. Certain players can start panicking and once they do, the media panics and then the city panics.
Tight races can also raise morale and motivation, however. Playoff-bound teams with big leads tend to give their regular players rest and days off. The mentality of being better than everyone else and not trying hard can set in.
That's the worst mentality a player can have.
Winning games in these tight races allows players to gain the necessary confidence to succeed in the playoffs. It shows them that they can win games that matter, but also brings them down to reality.
Players know that if they were close to having their season end before, it can certainly happen again. This causes them to strive to win so they don't have to worry about their season ending.
Of course the trick is to win the games and show players that they can do it. The Yankees are in a dark place right now and need to climb out of it soon.
Each pitch, hit and game matters. In the course of a 162-game season, that tends to get lost. However, when your season is on the line in mid-September, you start to remember that and begin acting that way.
So rather than using some games as throwaways to give the regulars rest, these games are used as training sessions for the real thing in October. In the playoffs, every pitch, hit, and game is dissected. Bad at-bats are deadly in the postseason.
The hitter needs to come to the plate with a plan. Will he try to get the baserunner over anyway he can, or will he try to be the hero and hit the homer?
The same goes for pitchers. If I walk this guy now, will it hurt me at the next at-bat?
Players think this way throughout the entire season. But most of the time they're thinking that they can bounce back next game if they make the wrong decision now.
They don't have that luxury in the playoffs. If CC Sabathia walks a hitter who ends up scoring the winning run, he might not have a next game where he can attempt to bounce back.
As for hitters, I can assure you that they regret not swinging at the pitch that strikes them out looking. After all, one of the worst ways to end the season is to strike out looking with the game winning run in scoring position.