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New York Yankees: 5 Keys to Entering MLB Playoffs with Momentum

Christopher ConnorsCorrespondent IJanuary 3, 2017

New York Yankees: 5 Keys to Entering MLB Playoffs with Momentum

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    The finish line is in sight and the path looks mostly clear, though there are still some roadblocks and obstacles for the New York Yankees to overcome in order to win the American League East.

    Seven games remain for the Yankees, and all of them will be against familiar foes within the division who are begging for the season to mercifully end. The Bombers make their final trip north of the border to take on Toronto for four games, and then close the season out in the Bronx next week against the miserable Boston Red Sox.

    The Yankees are 15-9 this month and have stepped up when the pressure has gotten tighter. That pressure has come from the Baltimore Orioles, who have played lights-out baseball over most of the second-half of the season.

    What's evident right now is the Yankees' experience and confidence in persevering through so many tests, injuries and losing stretches, and still standing tall atop the division. In fact, the Yankees have not relinquished their lead in first place for the entire second half.

    Unbelievably, after the Yankees' victory on Monday night in Minnesota, the Bombers finally had a lead in the division greater than one game for the first time in three weeks. Here's some historical perspective:

    According to STATS research, the 21-day stretch during which the Yankees and Orioles were separated by one game or less was the second longest in Major League Baseball history, the most days since 1897.

    How's that for hanging tough in the middle of a division and pennant race?

    That toughness, grit and unwillingness to give up is why the New York Yankees are still the most feared team in baseball. The Bombers may not have the best pitching rotation, and at times it appears their lineup has more holes than Dunkin' Donuts.

    But the idea of going into the Bronx to a raucous Yankee Stadium in October to take a series from the team with the best home record in baseball is not a task that any opposing team wants. Particularly not with the Yankees playing so well in the month of September.

    The Yankees are also nearly in a statistical dead-heat for the best home record in Major League Baseball. They know how to defend their home turf and take advantage of the short porch in right field with their lefty-laden lineup.

    Lately, it's been the Bombers' ability to hit all kinds of pitchers. Balance across the lineup, thanks to the hot hitting of Ichiro, Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, have helped to right the ship. The return of Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia's dominant left arm have helped as well.

    The baseball season is a long one and seven games still remain. Seven games for the Yankees to continue building on a hot month of September and enter the Playoffs ready for any challenger. Here are 5 keys for the Yankees to have momentum on their side.

1. Take Care of Business by Continuing to Win Each Series

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    It's never a bad thing to point out the obvious when it comes to statistics.

    The Yankees have played winning baseball in the month of September, and it's been a total team effort. They've gotten contributions from the players they've come to rely on like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia, but it's also been a strong back-end of the bullpen, as well as a solid starting pitching rotation, that's helped to get the job done.

    Yankee pitching has held AL opponents to the third-lowest batting average against (BAA) of any pitching staff this month. Even with sub-par hitting efforts in some games, the Yankees have been able to win some very close games against Toronto, Boston and Oakland thanks to excellent games from their starters and relievers.

    The interesting thing is that it's not imperative for a team to enter the postseason on a hot streak. Just ask the 2000 New York Yankees who went 5-16 over their final 21 games and nearly missed the playoffs. That team won the World Series in five games against the crosstown New York Mets.

    But ask any team if they'd want to enter the postseason playing quality baseball or reeling and I'm sure you know what answer to expect. The Yankees have two more opportunities against lousy teams to win each series and ensure that they'll be on top of the division for the duration of the season.

2. Keep the Bullpen Arms Fresh by Not Taxing Key Relievers

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    Yankee fans are feeling like it's deja vu all over again, watching their key bullpen arms getting taxed down the stretch. Boone Logan has appeared in the second-highest number of games for any pitcher in baseball. It seems like every time you look up, there's the tall lefty in a big spot in the later innings.

    This has brought back memories of the way former manager Joe Torre abused the arms of Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon, particularly during the 2004 season for Quantrill, and the 2005 season for Gordon.

    On aggregate, the Yankees bullpen has logged the third-least innings of any pitching staff in the major leagues this season, which should mean that their relievers' arms are fresh. However, this recent taxing stretch has meant lots of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain in order to preserve key victories.

    Logan has pitched in 16 games this month, Robertson 14 games and Soriano in 10 games. Joba Chamberlain has pitched in 12 games. That's why yesterday's victory in Minnesota was so important for the Bronx Bombers. All of their key relievers had the day off.

    It's incumbent upon their starting pitchers to pitch deep into games over these next seven and not force manager Joe Girardi's hand into going to his big arms in the 'pen. The Yankees will need a fresh bullpen to face the league's elite starting next week.

3. Continue to Get Healthy

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    On Brett Gardner, Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez and hopefully Mark Teixeira! This isn't Santa's call to the reindeer in preparation for a long Christmas Eve of delivering presents to boys and girls. This is a call for the Bombers to continue the domino effect of great health that has rippled through the clubhouse in recent weeks.

    Andy Pettitte is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in his two starts since returning from the disabled list. Brett Gardner returned as a defensive replacement late in yesterday's victory in Minnesota. A-Rod has fought nagging injuries, the latest of which is from a ball he fouled off his foot on Tuesday night. He should be fine.

    Now, Mark Teixeira is the last Yankee with promise of still being able to play this season, one that all of Yankee Universe is waiting on. The latest update on Tex is that he's progressing, but no timetable has been set on a return to major league action.

    Not to mention that players like Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson have all been quietly fighting minor injuries. The reality is, all players are dealing with pains, bumps and bruises at this time of the year. You just have to play through them.

    The Yankees have been incredibly fortunate to play such great baseball without one of their middle-of-the-order hitters in Teixeira. Getting No. 25 back would be a big boon to their lefty-leaning lineup, but at this point, having Pettitte back in the rotation along with a healthy CC Sabathia is of much greater importance for the postseason.

4. Keep Doing the "Little Things" Like Stealing Bases and Moving Runners over

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    It's safe to say that the Ichiro experiment has worked out quite nicely in the Bronx. So much so that the Yankees may want to thank their future Hall-of-Famer for getting them into the playoffs by giving him a one-year contract to come back next season.

    It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility, if the veteran Japanese outfielder would be amenable to a one-year contract for a reasonable rate. Some Yankee fans may want to cash in their chips with Ichiro following the season, while they're well ahead.

    However, Ichiro has done a lot to transform what had become a moribund Yankee offense. His .328 batting average and .823 OPS have certainly helped.

    The panache that the Yankees have been playing with for much of this month is thanks in large part to the energy and speed on the base paths, as well as the ability to move runners over with ground balls to the right side of the infield, or score them on a sacrifice fly or another ball put in play.

    On the day-to-day, it's been noticeable to see the Yankees playing more small ball by getting runs they simply weren't getting for much of the month of August. An A-Rod sac fly here, a Curtis Granderson RBI ground out there. It's all added up to the Yankees being one of the best teams in baseball in the month of September.

    The genesis of so much of this excitement has been Ichiro. Credit also is due Eduardo Nunez for his contributions in small sample sizes, and to Yankee sluggers like Raul Ibanez, Nick Swisher and Russell Martin for putting the ball in play and hitting to all parts of the park in order to plate extra runs.

    There's no formula for scoring runs. The Yankees have done it for most of this season by the home run. But this month, they've scored many more runs by smart base running, stolen bases and advancing runners. That may be hard to illustrate with statistics but it's been quite obvious in watching the games.

    There's a noticeable energy to this team now which has translated into a new momentum late in the season.

5. Make Sure X-Factors Hiroki Kuroda and Curtis Granderson Finish Strong

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    In a sport like baseball, it's hard to say that any one player is the most important part of your offense or pitching rotation unless they're so superlative along the lines of a Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander. For Detroit, that claim is easy to make.

    For the Yankees, you have to assume that CC Sabathia will be ready to deliver in a big spot, because he has several times before. Can you definitively say the same thing about Hiroki Kuroda? Kuroda has been the best pitcher for the Yankees this season, and he'll have the chance to show on Friday night why he's been so important to the Bombers' success in 2012.

    What's disconcerting right now is that Kuroda has not had a particularly good month of September. He's 2-1 with a 5.63 ERA so far, and two of his four starts have been rather lackluster. Sometimes numbers can be deceiving, as Kuroda pitched a much better game against Tampa on September 16th than the box score shows.

    Yet, all summer long Kuroda was nearly downright dominant, and he simply hasn't been this month. It's hard to imagine the veteran is tiring, and it's probably more a matter of some hitters catching on to his pitch sequences. Either way, Kuroda is the Yankees' biggest x-factor in the starting rotation.

    They'd like to feel that he has his best stuff, once again, as he enters the playoffs.

    Granderson pulled off a feat on Monday night that only four others Yankees in history have achieved. Granderson crushed his 40th homer on the season to record a second consecutive 40-home run season. Count Jason Giambi and then three other pretty good ballplayers in that club: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle.

    Not bad company.

    A strong postseason from Curtis Granderson will go a long way to lengthening the Yankee lineup and putting massive amounts of pressure on opposing pitching staffs. When Granderson is on, the Yankees are likely the best team in the American League. It's that simple.

    The man has hit more home runs than any player in baseball over the last two major league seasons. He's also a much better all-around hitter than he's shown himself to be of late. An encouraging triple yesterday that blew the game wide open in Minnesota may be the impetus for his all-around hitting game to come out.

    The Yankees will surely need A-Rod, Swisher and all of their hitters to step up in a short series. Curtis Granderson's ability to change a game with just one swing cannot be dismissed, however, and his ability to come through in the clutch will have a big impact on the Yankee season's fate.

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