(The majority of this piece was written around 1 o'clock this afternoon. Wacky computer-related hijinks stopped me from posting until after today's games ended, so we know a little bit more now than we did ten hours ago.)
Two months and 50 games ago, I wrote a review of the first 50 games of this 2009 season and pronounced us in good shape. Within the week, the Yankees went into Fenway Park and had a stroke, lost their division lead, and spent the rest of the month of June and the beginning of July playing catch-up and waiting for the Red Sox to cool off. Just as they regained a tie for first place, they went to Anaheim and lost three games in a row in embarrassing fashion to end the first half of the season.
Since then, they've officially lost Chien-Ming Wang for the year, watched ever more anxiously for stories on Toronto trying to move Roy Halladay, and in the midst of all of that ripped off a 10-2 start to the second half, including a blistering start of eight wins in a row.
Today, as I write this, the Yankees are two-and-a-half games ahead of the Red Sox, and six-and-a-half ahead of Tampa, solidly in first place for the first time since 2006.
In the first 10 games the Yankees played after the break, all at home, they scored just 48 runs, and went 9-1. The difference, of course, has been the pitching.
A.J. Burnett, 5-0 with a 2.01 ERA since June 27, is making himself known as a true staff ace, outshining even his bigger-bodied, bigger-salaried teammate Sabathia—who, last night aside, has been no slouch himself—pitching into the seventh inning in all but three starts this year. Joba Chamberlain has allowed only two runs in his last two starts (13.2 IP), both wins.
And the bullpen has arguably been even better. Phil Hughes has thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings since the middle of June. He picked up a win in relief against Detroit in the second-half opener, and a week later picked up his first career save against Oakland. Alfredo Aceves and Phil Coke have both pitched to season averages of 1.01 baserunners allowed per inning.
Behind them, Mariano Rivera, with seven saves since the second half began, is putting together another Cy Young-caliber year - if the press would only vote for a closer - Rivera has allowed 36 total baserunners against 47 strikeouts in 42.2 innings, and is second in the American League with 29 saves.
On the other side of the coin, Boston's biggest first-half strength, their pitching, is somewhat on the ropes. Tim Wakefield, their leader in wins, is on the disabled list. Brad Penny remembered that he's Brad Penny. John Smoltz, at 40-years-old and coming off shoulder surgery, is no more than a sub-par fourth starter—a monumentally disappointing potential finish to a Hall of Fame career.
Boston's offense has struggled to the point where GM Theo Epstein felt the need to trade for two more decent bats in the last week—former Pittsburgh 1B Adam LaRoche and former St. Louis OF Chris Duncan.
Now, early on in the season, I prophesied Toronto's midseason fall from contention. I should have also known to make a similar prediction for Tampa Bay.
In 2006, after winning the World Series the year before, the Chicago White Sox' pitching staff fell apart. Their 2005 team ERA was 3.61, with a 1.25 WHIP (baserunners per inning). Their 2006 team ERA was a full run higher (4.61), and their team WHIP rose to 1.36 baserunners per inning. They missed the playoffs that year.
In 2007, a similar fate befell the AL Champion Detroit Tigers—although it might also have been because they wouldn't let Kenny Rogers cheat anymore. Their team ERA rose from 3.84 to 4.57 and they missed the playoffs. Verlander, Robertson and Bonderman all missed a considerable amount of time, and were less effective when they pitched.
The 2008 Rockies, a year removed from "Rocktober," were derailed by the implosion of young ace Jeff Francis, saw their team ERA rise from 4.32—respectable, for Coors Field—to 4.77 and missed the playoffs.
What we see here, folks, is a trend of teams with great young pitchers making runs deep into October, throwing their guys an extra 20-odd innings a piece in the highest-pressure situation imaginable, and then seeing their arm strength regress the next year.
So the Rays, with their rotation chock full of star pitchers all in their mid twenties—and recovering from their first postseason—are a little tiny bit screwed. Kazmir, Shields and Garza are a top-three that any team would kill to have for the next six years. Just don't expect too much from them down the stretch this season.
(NOTE: Cole Hamels' early-season woes in Philadelphia are along this same line, but with the ascension of J.A. Happ as a force in the rotation and the Cliff Lee trade, the Phillies have largely dodged that bullet. As of today, they're the team to beat in the National League, even over Torre's boys in Los Angeles.)
(UPDATED - 11:15pm...Yankees 6, Rays 2 / A's 8, Red Sox 6)
With the Yankees' victory tonight, they leave Tampa Bay up by seven-and-a-half games and the AL East race is effectively down to two teams. Boston is not nearly as impressive right now as they were in the middle of June.
They've just lost their second game in a row to Oakland (see above, Brad Penny remembering that he's Brad Penny), and the law of large numbers says there's no way either team wins or loses more than 12 or 13 out of an 18-game season series. Our season-high lead of three-and-a-half games looks pretty safe right now.
Barring a train-derailing injury, or Roy Halladay moving to Massachusetts, the Yankees are the prohibitive favorite to win the American League East.
Now, if only they can figure out how to win in California.