The battle for the AL East has been one of the—if not the most—entertaining clashes in baseball’s recent history and one that has yet to disappoint. And while there are still roughly 20 some odd games left in the season, this epic battle continues to rage on and will probably do so until the very last game of the season.
Each team has done everything to claim first place: win consistently and keep the head-to-head record within a stone’s throw away. Despite their best efforts to be the only king of the hill, each team has swapped rental space in the AL East Penthouse a few times already…but in the end, only one team can win this division.
I’d like to take a look at the 10 biggest keys for finishing with the MLB’s best record and AL East crown. I'd like to look at the universal keys, as well as a few individual keys, as a way of spreading things out.
Heck, at this point winning the freaking division is just as big as winning the Fall Classic…well almost anyway.
The Yankees acquired Kerry Wood, Austin Kearns, and Lance Berkman, while the Rays are enjoying the services of their newest toy Jeremy Hellickson.
Each of these mentioned players have had a noticeable effect on their respective teams. The Yankees bullpen has been far more solid since Wood arrived—well almost anyway, but we’ll get to that later—while the Rays have gotten a giant boost on the mound thanks to Hellickson's 3-0 record, 3.34 ERA, and 27/6 K/BB ratio.
The new faces on each team have already been paramount in the overall success of their respective teams, now they must remain as effective as they have been (offensively, defensively, or both) as a way of preserving their forward contributions.
This means keeping the rookie Hellickson mentally ready for a tough end to the schedule and getting Kearns to pick things up with his bat. This also means keeping Berkman healthy and utilizing his services as DH effectively.
Whomever manages and utilizes their X-factor players the best has a greater chance for winning the division.
Grant Balfour returns after his extended stint on the DL dating back to July with an Intercostal strain (the muscles in the rib cage area….very painful, trust me).
Before going down, Balfour was dominating batters with a 2.08 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in 43 games and his return in a setup role for the Rays at the most crucial point in the season is huge for a team that is currently two and a half games behind the Yanks.
But it takes time to garner confidence when returning from an injury like that one, so the Rays’ offense must provide Balfour with solid opportunities where they are NOT behind the eight ball as a way of expediting his return process.
If Balfour returns and stays healthy though, the Rays increase their chances of taking the division.
There is no denying A.J. Burnett’s ability as a pitcher, especially as a pitcher in the playoffs. But unfortunately, there is no denying the guy has struggled heavily in 2010.
From March to April, Burnett went 6-2 with a 4.44 ERA; but since then he has miserably gone 4-11 with a 6.50 ERA. As if that isn’t enough, each month, starting with June, Burnett has vacillated between pitching well and pitching terribly.
I mean, really, the guy went 0-5 with an 11.35 ERA in June, only to follow that up with a 3-1 record and a 2.00 ERA in July????
That simply won’t do.
Consistency wins championships. If the Yankees can’t get Burnett wrapped up then they should bench him indefinitely before he becomes the sole reason why this team doesn’t win the division.
There are a number of player on the Rays and Yankees who can still play hard while only being 85% healthy as we’ve seen this season. But in the playoffs a near 100% player is of far greater value than one who is still mildly on the mend.
Keeping players healthy and getting players healthy is a must. It's an area of concentration of vital importance to each team’s staff.
Winning matchups, specific approaches, and proper mentality all starts with the health of a player. The health of each player naturally becomes the overall health of the team.
A more obvious mention albeit, but the last thing either of these teams want is a hot bat to go frigid on them at a crucial point in the season.
Both of these teams can hit and both of these teams have proven that, so keeping the wood hot keeps the fire going so to speak. But it will take patience.
Each of these teams will face competitors who are looking to either play the spoiler or end their season on a high note, so the pitching could be better than expected. But with a little preparation and expectation those bats should continue to dominate.
The Yankees are ready to embark on a fierce road trip that starts with the Rangers, while the Rays get to spend a considerable amount of time at home. But each team NEEDS to win the right matchups.
The Yankees have to face the Orioles, Rangers, Blue Jays, and Red Sox on the road. These matchups—any one of them—could challenge their first place residency.
The Rays, on the other hand, have an “easier” road ahead of them. They face the Mariners, Royals, and Angels. But facing lesser competition is a breeding ground for a team falling asleep at the wheel, so the Rays need to take advantage of the matchups they are facing.
The best part is……
….in between the aforementioned matchups are seven games between the Yankees and Rays. To be honest, whoever wins this rivalry will probably win the division.
“So much to digest; Calgon take me away…”
So far the Rays have the edge six game to five, so winning at least four out of the next seven would at the least guarantee a tie breaker in the event.
For the Yankees, all they technically need to win is four themselves, but winning five of seven would send a huge message to the Rays.
We already talked about winning on the road, winning the right matchups, and even winning against each other. One of the best ways to accomplish that is situational play…or base stealing.
It’s a simple formula: steal a base, up your chances for the “W.”
Now it may be safe to assume that the base stealing will be significantly harder when these two face off against each other, but that is even more reason to emphasize one of the more crucial offensive weapons in the game.
Team consistency is an absolute must at this time of year.
Each team knows it. There have been, at times, a great deal of overall inconsistency from each of these competitors; inconsistency that has cost both teams first place throughout the season.
A season, and a divisional race that comes down to the wire requires more consistency than a regular season run. That isn’t always easy to do, since the jitters start creeping in, the demand from each player is higher, the matchups become more intense, and the losses become more costly.
Whoever gets their ground underneath them the best has a grand advantage towards winning this perpetual divisional showdown .
But there is also another way to achieve this heightened level of consistency, which ironically, is just as important…
Neither of these teams are new to this sort of song and dance. Both the Yankees and Rays are chock full of seasoned veterans that are as playoff weathered as they come, which means they know the territory that is crucial in getting the postseason.
In addition, these two teams are no strangers to each other.
Without getting into an insipid debate as to who is the more seasoned team (because quite frankly it doesn’t matter unless we are talking All-Time…which we are not) the fact of the matter is every stripe each team has earned this year now has to be brought to the table.
Each lesson learned, each cross road intersected, each challenge triumphed over, needs to be utilized and funneled into one singular forward focus, towards achieving a simple key that unlocks a door to an even bigger endeavor—the quest for the World Series!