7 Keys for the New York Yankees Down the Stretch

Anthony Maimone@@amaimone4Featured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2013

7 Keys for the New York Yankees Down the Stretch

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    Despite all the injuries and all the controversy they've had to deal with for the majority of the season, the New York Yankees find themselves right in the thick of the wild-card race.

    Now 2.5 games out of the final wild-card spot and with only 23 games left in the season, the Yankees need to key in on several areas to ensure making the playoffs is achievable.

    The final month will decide their fate, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Yankees' chances of seeing October baseball.

    With such a tight race, the Yankees need their faltering stars to join their rising heroes in a combined effort to close this late-season gap.

    If the following factors come to fruition, the pinstripes will be fighting for another pennant.

1. Ivan Nova Continues to Dominate

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    When the Yankees needed him the most, Ivan Nova came up huge. As the Yankees were building a lineup that could finally score runs, many of the Yankees starters began to falter.

    CC Sabathia hasn't been right all season, and even the reliable Hiroki Kuroda has recently suffered back-to-back terrible outings.

    All Nova did to pick up the slack was take home AL Pitcher of the Month in August.

    Nova finished the month 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA. One of those wins came in a complete game effort against fellow wild-card contender Baltimore.

    If Nova can keep up that trend, it could take a little pressure off of Sabathia to be perfect and allow him to get back on track.

2. CC Sabathia Puts It Together for One Month

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    CC Sabathia has been anything but an ace all season long.

    His 4.85 ERA and 11 losses are both career highs, and that ERA is over a full run higher than his career average.

    The Yankees are in the wild-card race in spite of Sabathia instead of the usual other way around.

    In a way that is the beauty of this predicament. Sabathia is the owner of over 200 career wins and plenty of big-game performances.

    He has the opportunity now to erase the memory of the previous five months and help carry this team during the final month of September.

    If Sabathia can muster up those ace performances for just one month and help the Yankees get into the playoffs, everything else that happened this season will be an afterthought.

3. Phil Hughes Embraces Bullpen Role

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    The Yankees finally made the not-so-difficult decision to remove starter Phil Hughes out of the rotation and place him in the bullpen.

    This was a move that was months in the making, as Hughes has been one of the worst starters in baseball this season.

    Hughes is 4-13 with a 4.86 ERA on the season and failed to make it through five innings in 40 percent of his starts.

    That is a lot of innings he has forced his bullpen to pitch, which typically comes back to hurt a team in September.

    So off to the bullpen Hughes goes in hopes that he can relive the most dominant time he has had as a professional.

    It is a small sample size and most of it occurred during the 2009 season, but in 56.1 innings pitched out of the bullpen, Hughes has a 1.44 ERA and a K/9 over 11.

    Regardless of where and how the Yankees use him out of the bullpen, if he can embrace the roll and resemble that player, the Yankees would have turned a problem into an asset.

4. Take Advantage of Rest and Stay Healthy

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    The Yankees' comeback has coincided with the return or addition to the lineup of injured players.

    All season long the Yankees have witnessed their players head to the disabled list, in some instances multiple times.

    Now that players like Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez are back healthy and contributing, the Yankees are taking off.

    In most cases, players begin to fall victim to fatigue in September thanks to the dog days of August.

    However, if the Yankees are able to stay healthy the rest of the way, they can benefit greatly from the fresh legs they would be playing on.

    Turning an all-season negative into a late-season positive is one way to view their position.

5. Survive Upcoming 11-Game Stretch

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    The biggest key to the rest of the Yankees' season will come down to surviving their next 11 games.

    The stretch beings with four home games versus the first-place Boston Red Sox, followed by seven games on the road, four against wild-card contending Baltimore and then another three at Boston.

    In my opinion, the Yankees need to get out of this stretch with a winning record.

    If they can go 6-5, they can set themselves up really well with their final 12 games.

    It would seem the only way they can make it out of this stretch with a winning record is to win at least three of four games at home against the Red Sox.

6. Hope Kansas City and Cleveland Hurt Each Other

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    Unfortunately for the Yankees, they still need to keep a close eye on their competition.

    The Yankees play the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays down the stretch, so they will be able to help themselves against those opponents.

    However, they can't control the winning ways of the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals.

    What the Yankees can hope for is that during the six games those two teams still have against each other they do enough damage to keep them off the pace.

    The real scary team of the two is the Cleveland Indians. They trail the Yankees by only one game and have one of the easiest schedules down the stretch.

    Outside of the six games left against the Royals, the Indians don't face another team with a winning record and face the last-place Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros a combined 10 times.

    If their is a team to watch, it will be the Indians putting on the pressure.

7. Sweep Houston to Close Season

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    The Yankees need to put themselves in a situation where they can control their own fate heading into the final series of the season.

    If the Yankees can hold even a share of the final wild-card spot, they will have the confidence of knowing they face the worst team in baseball to end the season.

    Even on the road, the Yankees should expect nothing but a sweep against the bottom-dwelling Astros.

    Nothing is a given, but a team fighting for a playoff spot should have no problem handling a team waiting to just go home.

    If the Yankees need three wins against the Astros to make the playoffs and don't get them, then they probably don't deserve to be in the playoffs to begin with.