Almost two weeks and 46 at-bats following home run 599, Alex Rodriguez belted his 600th career home run and officially became the youngest to do so at age 35, displacing Babe Ruth who did so at age 36. The Yankees have been reeling as of late, in part due to Rodriguez.
Following his 599th homer on July 22 and up through today's victory on August 4, the Yanks have gone 6-7 dropping two straight series to division rivals Rays and Blue Jays. The Yankees did go on to win the game that A-Rod hit his 600th in, possible evidence that this ball club's success was slumping with this 600 drama, indeed.
It was apparent that the pressure, the media, and the attention were affecting both Rodriguez and the ball club overall. It seemed that with A-Rod not doing what he was expected to, the Yanks followed suit.
The Yankees took early 2-0 leads in three out of the six combined games played against Tampa and Toronto. They went on to lose those three including getting shutout in the rubber game in Tampa. As a result, the Yankees, currently, are .5 games behind the Rays for first place in the American League East and are 5 games ahead of the Red Sox.
This weekend marks a pivotal moment in New York quest for a Division Title this season.
The Red Sox visit Yankee Stadium on Friday to begin a 4-game series while the Rays visit Toronto for a 3-game set. Though the Rays, Red Sox, and Yanks will all meet again before season's end, this weekend's divisional series could result one clear-cut A.L. East leader (Tampa), and/or one team being virtually eliminated from contention (Boston).
Tampa seems to have hit their high mark. Though they beat a struggling Yankee club, they currently have all the pieces they need to make a winning run at the Division Title, and for the moment, those pieces are all functioning. Only a few in their lineup can hit the ball out, but all of them can drive in runs to compliment a very good starting rotation.
Their weakness possibly lies in their depth on the bench. Their roster already is mostly composed of rookies and transient veterans who have compiled good numbers over a few years, but beyond that, they don't have what the Yankees have now, and what the Red Sox had perennially in the past up to this year, is a bench that can hurt you in one pinch-hit situation.
The lack of a quality bench also means the Rays are not as capable to rest their starters in-game or properly fill in for an injury in the same manner as the Yankees or Red Sox can.
New York has the road laid out ahead of them. 600 is gone and now the club is no longer subject to the extra attention they received in addition to all the attention they already garner being in the A.L. East, being a top contender, and, of course, being the historic powerhouse Yankees. New York has the pieces they need to secure their division. The only thing left is execution. They bolstered their bullpen with Kerry Wood. If they get Alfredo Aceves back, their 'pen will be nearly untouchable.
Their offense has always been there, it was just a matter of getting it to function altogether. Picking up Lance Berkman was ingenious. Another switch-hitting home run hitter to DH and play First Base. The most importnant note is that Berkman plays First Base. This gives the Yankees a ligitimate, A-List First Baseman to give Teixeira an occasional break. This duo at First Base will work better than their original tandem of Teixeira and Thames/Miranda.
Their rotation is above average and is one starter away from going on a streak in the form of Andy Pettitte who should return in the next two or three weeks. The question is if that is two or three weeks too late.
Boston is set to get outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury back from the DL for the first time since May. To add more drama to this soap opera of a division, Ellsbury is to return just in time to play in the Boston/New York series set to begin this Friday because, of course, no player wants to be left out of this rivalry. Boston has the chance of turning a possible 5.5 game deficit from first into a firm second place standing or even a Division lead depending on their series with the Yankees and how Tampa fairs North of the Border.
Boston still has key players who are not where they usually are at this point of the season such as Kevin Youkilis, Jason Varitek, Mike Cameron, and their laser show in the form of Dustin Pedroia.
However, with this great opportunity comes the potential for great distress. It also means they risk falling to 9 games back of first place if they are swept by the Yankees. The depth Red Sox bench and farm system is the reason the Sox are still in the conversation for a postseason spot.
Yes, this upcoming weekend can be confusing, numbers wise, but it can also be a season changer, a season clincher, and a season destroyer.
Remembering that these three clubs will all meet again before season's end, one cannot help but to consider how terribly this weekend can play out for all three clubs, and the results of the weekend.
Weekends like this can begin season ending losing streaks just as easily as they can begin division clinching winning streaks.
Even the Blue Jays who currently sit 12 games out of first have a chance to make a legitimate run at the A.L. Wild Card if the right events take shape this weekend. That being said, there is only a half game difference between the A.L. East Title and the Wild Card for the top four teams in the A.L. East.