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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Stretch Run Will Tell Tale of Yankees Present, Future

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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Stretch Run Will Tell Tale of Yankees Present, Future
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1. Yankees vs. Schedule-Makers

Not that the Yankees are holding open auditions these days, but 52 times this season, Joe Girardi has handed the ball to a rookie starter and steered him toward the mound.

No other team in the majors has started rookie hurlers as often this summer, and only three times since rookie rules were established in 1958 have the Yankees entrusted a larger number of their games to those classified as such: 1991 (54 times), 1986 (54) and 2007 (52).

Click Ahead to Other Topics

• Numbers not adding up for the Orioles
• Finally, the Dodgers find some late-inning magic
• Joey Bats shows his not-so-glamorous side
• The numbers crunch is growing in the Bronx
• Mariners make dizzying history in Boston
• Stephen Strasburg keeps the Nationals guessing
• Is Billy Butler's glove key to Royals' renaissance?
• It's time to start planning for next year for a few teams

Yet each time this seeming pinstriped version of Christians-Lions threatens to become gory (especially with Masahiro Tanaka, who has started 18 times, out)…it doesn't. The Yankees steal a few wins, the Orioles get swept by a bad Cubs team in Wrigley Field, and, presto, the Yankees' pulse quickens.

That the Yankees started this week in second place in the AL East, only six games behind Baltimore, is either a testament to their steely resolve and fortitude, or an enormous indictment of the Blue Jays, Rays and Red Sox.

Debate that as you may (correct answer: A lot of both), but now comes the next round of heavy lifting for the Yankees: A key stretch of schedule in which 21 of their next 30 games, taking them through Sept. 25, is against clubs with winning records.

Starting Tuesday, nine of their next 12 are against winning clubs: the Royals, Tigers and Blue Jays. Throw in Tanaka's scheduled simulated game Thursday in Detroit, and this is the latest week that could make or break the 2014 Yankees.

What we're watching is Girardi's best job of managing yet and a Yankees club that should leave even the most ardent optimists scratching the stadium giveaway caps sitting atop their heads.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

A "future" with Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran really is more of a past. CC Sabathia did what he was supposed to, helping to bring another World Series title to the Bronx (2009), but he's not going to be leading a staff in his twilight years. And just think, only six more months remain before Alex Rodriguez pops his head out in Tampa like Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania.

What general manager Brian Cashman has been unable to do in the years since the latest dynasty ended in 2000 is establish a pipeline of prospects that replenishes the major league club.

As Derek Jeter enters the final month of his career, the roaring question is: When will the next Jeter emerge from the Yankees' system? That "Core Four"—Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera…all were drafted or signed and developed in the Yankees' system.

As for the present, the Yankees have used a franchise-record 31 pitchers so far this season. Only the Texas Rangers (36), hit by a Noah's Ark-sized flood of injuries, have employed more.

Still, including old warhorses Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano, Yankees starters were 6-4 with a 2.77 ERA over their past 18 games heading into Michael Pineda’s start in Kansas City on Monday.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

That's a far better reality for this group than the Yankees had any right to expect. Now strength of schedule comes into play with the force of a USC linebacker.

Of course, the Orioles have helped New York remain alive. No sooner had the Birds opened a commanding nine-game lead in the AL East before they ran smack into the Javier Baez Wrigley Field Wrecking Co.

The result was a 4-5 road trip. Chris Davis is now down to a .190 batting average, the lowest mark of any major leaguer with at least 400 at-bats. And Manny Machado is lost for the season to knee surgery.

So can the Yankees erase the rest of the Orioles' lead? Or even wipe out a 2.5-game deficit in the wild-card standings, where they trail both the Seattle Mariners and Tigers (emphasizing the magnitude of this week's series)?

A lot may hinge on the one game this week that doesn't count, a simulated game scheduled for Thursday that will see Tanaka test his injured elbow, which has had him on the DL since July.

 

2. The Orioles By the Numbers

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Just when the Orioles appeared to be running away from the pack in the AL East, they were whacked by the Cubs and sideswiped by news that Manny Machado will be lost for the year due to surgery on his right knee. Last summer, his season ended early with the same procedure on his left knee.

It's the end of a bizarre season for Machado, who lost it during a series against the A's in June, was suspended and now says he has abnormal knees, which left them vulnerable to injuries. By having this surgery now, he says, he hopes his knee issues will become a thing of the past

You can't help but wonder whether Machado's knees now will compromise his future. He arrived in the majors as such a supreme talent at 19 in 2012. With him and catcher Matt Wieters both out for the season, the Orioles have taken a huge hit.

Meantime, Nelson Cruz leads the majors with 34 homers after Chris Davis' 53 topped the majors last summer. If Cruz maintains his lead, the Orioles will become only the fourth team since 1920 to have two different players win homer titles in back-to-back seasons, according to STATS, LLC.

The others: The 1936-37 Yankees (Lou Gehrig 49, Joe DiMaggio 46), the 1987-88 Athletics (Mark McGwire 49, Jose Canseco 42) and the 1993-94 Giants (Barry Bonds 46, Matt Williams 43).

 

3. Dodging the Late-Inning Heroics

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

That the Dodgers beat the Padres 2-1 last Thursday in Dodger Stadium on its own wasn't a big deal.

That they did it when Justin Turner bashed a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning? That made it kind of a big deal.

Until then, the Dodgers were 0-46 in games in which they trailed after seven innings this season. They were the only team in the majors without a victory in that situation.

Big deal? Well, to hear radio talkers in Los Angeles, it at times showed a lack of heart, courage, fortitude and guts.

The truth of the matter is the zero wins was the weird part. You'd think that the Dodgers would have snatched one or two by late August. But it's not like successful clubs always thrive in those situations. The Nationals, leading the NL East, were 6-44 at the time when trailing after seven. The Brewers, leading the NL Central, were 5-41.

Closest to the Dodgers in the NL was the Cardinals, who were 1-43 in those situations (they're 2-45 now).

 

4. This Week With the Blue Jays

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Toronto was supposed to be contending for a playoff slot right about now. Instead, the Blue Jays this month have made spectacles of themselves.

They're contesting a new logo introduced by the Creighton University Bluejays because, get this, it looks like a Blue Jay.

And as if losing nine of their past 12 isn't enough to put a damper on any October hopes, Jose Bautista is showing the opposite of leadership skills. After Bautista was ejected by plate ump Bill Welke in the sixth inning of Sunday’s 2-1, 10-inning loss to Tampa Bay, manager John Gibbons let him have it.

"Bottom line is, we needed him in the game," Gibbons told reporters. "Say your piece and get the hell out of there. We're trying to get in the playoffs, we need you on the field. He's a marked man in this game. Bill Welke? I thought he had a pretty good zone today. It was steady, he was calling strikes. He was looking to call strikes. But we need you in the game."

 

5. The Yankees By the Numbers

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It was nice to see the final residue of hard feelings between Joe Torre and the Yankees melt away Saturday as they retired his No. 6. His was the 18th number the Yankees have retired, and at this rate, maybe they could use a few bitter breakups with legends in the near future (like the way the Red Sox always seem to roll!).

They're going to run out of numbers eventually, and assuming it is a slam dunk that Derek Jeter's No. 2 eventually will be retired, they're already out of single-digit numbers in the Bronx:

  1. Billy Martin
  2. Derek Jeter (will be retired eventually)
  3. Babe Ruth
  4. Lou Gehrig
  5. Joe DiMaggio
  6. Joe Torre
  7. Mickey Mantle
  8. Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey
  9. Roger Maris

By the way, for those who don't know, way back when numbers were first placed onto uniforms, they signified the slot in the batting order that player occupied. Thus, Ruth wore No. 3 and Gehrig No. 4.

 

6. Dizzying Heights for Mariners

Not to make light of Robinson Cano leaving Sunday's game in Boston because of dizziness—he later said he thought it might be a touch of the flu—but has anyone considered that Cano's condition might have been results-induced?

 

7. Nationals Alert

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Winners of 12 of 14 and hotter than anybody this side of the Kansas City Royals, the Nationals are playing well enough that manager Matt Williams probably is going to have the luxury of arranging his playoff rotation sooner rather than later.

And his Game 1 starter at this point has to be…Jordan Zimmermann? Doug Fister?

There was a time the quick answer would have been Stephen Strasburg. But Strasburg's mysterious inconsistency this summer peaked Sunday during the Nationals' 14-6 laugher over the Giants.

The game became a laugher only after Washington was able to erase the 5-0 deficit Strasburg dug them in the first three innings. Strasburg, who has struggled with fastball location off and on all summer, inexplicably grooved pitches to Travis Ishikawa and Gregor Blanco, both of which turned into home runs.

Already this season, Strasburg has surrendered a career-high 21 homers, five more than he served up all of last year in only 7.2 fewer innings (175.1, as compared to 183 in 2013).

On the flip side, Strasburg leads the NL with 202 strikeouts.

He is an exceptionally hard worker. He cares. And the strikeouts tell you his stuff is still there.

Simply put, he is an ongoing example that this game is nearly impossible to tame, even by the uber-talented. Strasburg still has not lived up to the overwhelming hype that trumpeted his arrival back in 2010. But at 26, there is still time.

Heck, there's still time for him to tune things up enough this year to start Game 1.

 

8. To DH or Not to DH?

USA TODAY Sports

We all know the glory days of the designated hitter—way back when thumpers like Don Baylor, Chili Davis, Edgar Martinez and Brian Downing roamed the earth—have long since passed.

But check out the profile of a guy this summer whom you would think would be the perfect DH, Billy Butler.

As pointed out by stats guru Bill Chuck, in 93 games as a DH this year, Butler is hitting .261/.310/.336 with three homers and 35 RBI.

In 29 games as a first baseman, Butler is at .308/.351/.523 with five homers and 16 RBI.

Oh, and most important: Before July 20, Butler essentially was a full-time DH. Since he's moved to first base, the Royals had compiled baseball's best record at 24-8.

 

9. Cool Standings? You Bet

Ben Margot/Associated Press

With September drawing near, a check at what used to be coolstandings.com and now is on the FanGraphs.com website:

The current division leader with the greatest probability of winning its division is the Nationals (at 98.9 percent), followed by the Dodgers (92.5), Orioles (89.5), A's (56.8) and Royals (46.5).

The NL Central? That’s the most fascinating division, according to the probabilities: The Brewers currently lead the Cardinals by 1.5 games…yet the Cardinals (48 percent) have a higher probability of winning the division than the Brewers (47.2).

According to FanGraphs' Cool Standings, nine teams can begin looking to next summer, with a zero percent chance at this year's wild-card slots: The Red Sox, White Sox, Twins, Astros, Rangers, Phillies, Cubs, Diamondbacks and Rockies.

 

9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week

A prayer for Ferguson, Missouri, and for the greater good to be done throughout our land….

DOUG PIZAC/Associated Press

"Mother, mother

"There's too many of you crying

"Brother, brother, brother

"There's far too many of you dying

"You know we've got to find a way

"To bring some lovin' here today, ya

"Father, father

"We don't need to escalate

"You see, war is not the answer

"For only love can conquer hate

"You know we've got to find a way

"To bring some lovin' here today"

— Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On"

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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