New York Yankees fans aren't easily impressed. This is the franchise that has won 27 World Series championships, more than twice as many as any other club. The franchise that spends more than anyone east of Chavez Ravine. The franchise of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.
The pinstripe faithful expect greatness. So a distant second place in the American League East and a 2.5-game deficit in the wild-card race won't send champagne corks popping across the Big Apple.
For much of 2014, doom and gloom have reigned. Here's how Daniel Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal summed things up on August 12, amid two straight losses to the division-leading Baltimore Orioles:
The 44 games remaining on the schedule represent a window closing, with each missed opportunity signaling a season that is slipping away. The Yankees talk about how important each game is to their quest to win the division, but this club is rapidly running out of time.
That sound you hear is a death knell reverberating through the Bronx.
There is reason for optimism, though.
With an 8-1 win over the Kansas City Royals Monday night, the Yankees moved to 68-61. Yes, they're still looking up at the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers in the scramble for the second wild card, and they trail Baltimore by six games in the AL East.
It was, however, the Bombers' fifth consecutive victory. For a team that has struggled to find consistency all season, that feels like a little headway.
Starting pitcher Michael Pineda continued his march down the comeback trail Monday, allowing one earned run in 6.1 innings and lowering his ERA to 1.95.
Pineda was suspended in April for "possessing a foreign substance"—he admitted to putting pine tar on his neck, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch—and then landed on the 60-day disabled list with a shoulder injury.
Since returning August 13, the big right-hander has tossed 17.1 solid innings in three starts and helped stabilize New York's rotation. Two of those games ended in losses, but Pineda was not to blame, what with his 2.08 ERA and 12-1 ratio of strikeouts to walks (not to mention two no-decisions).
Will the Yankees make the playoffs this year?
"He's got so much cut on his fastball, I feel like he could throw that every pitch and be very successful," catcher Brian McCann said after Monday's win, per ESPNNewYork.com's Douglas Tucker. "And a wipeout slider and a really good changeup. When he's on, he's tough."
The same could be said for other Yankees.
Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who left the rival Boston Red Sox to ink a seven-year, $153 million deal with New York, has had a serviceable but unspectacular season. On Monday, he connected for his 11th home run and drove in three with three hits, hiking his average to .280.
Ichiro Suzuki also showed flashes of his former self, going 2-for-4.
And Derek Jeter, in the midst of his farewell tour, collected two RBI and a standing ovation from the Kauffman Stadium crowd. It was an unusual goodbye—the game was a one-off makeup for a June rainout—but a goodbye nonetheless.
Jeter's swan song has been the backdrop all season for the Yankees and their fans, who want desperately to send The Captain out on a high note.
Of course, simply squeaking into the playoffs wouldn't be nearly enough, not by the Yankees' (or Jeter's) standards. And even that will be an uphill battle in the murky, ever-shifting American League.
There is good news on the horizon: Imported ace Masahiro Tanaka, who hasn't pitched since July 8 because of a tear in his right ulnar collateral ligament, could face live hitters as soon as Saturday, per the New York Post's George A. King III.
The Yankees have a slightly less arduous remaining schedule than the Mariners and Tigers, per ESPN.com. And Baltimore, still reeling from the loss of third baseman Manny Machado, have the third-toughest road ahead in baseball.
If Tanaka can muster a dramatic re-entrance and New York can keep its mojo going over the month of September, anything is possible.
Unless that "anything" results in another Commissioner's Trophy, though, don't expect Yankees fans to be impressed—or the bubbly to be flowing.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.