Don't tell Joe Girardi, but the Yankees haven't clinched anything yet.
The sputtering Bombers, who have lost nine of their last 13, somehow still have the best record in baseball. But their lead entering their final four-game series with the second-place Rays is just half a game, so the American League East title and homefield advantage could very well be decided this week in the Bronx.
But there could be even more on the line for New York, who lead third-place Boston by just seven games with six head-to-head meetings coming up in the final two weekends of the season.
If the Yanks drop three of four to the Rays and the Red Sox sweep three at Fenway from the Orioles, the potential Wild Card lead would be down to 4 1/2 entering this Friday's opener at the Stadium. At that point, the feisty Sox would pretty much control their own destiny.
The time for the Yankees to start winning is now. Nine of their last 12 games have been decided by one run, and they're just 3-6 in those tight contests.
So what's the problem?
It's more than Mariano Rivera blowing two of his last four save opportunities. It's the Bombers' over reliance on homers and inability to tack on runs using small ball and situational hitting. It's also due to Girardi's obsession with resting players and treating the expanded 40-man roster like it's a Little League team on which everyone must play.
Both problems were on display in Sunday's 4-3 loss to the Orioles.
In the top of the 11th, Girardi made the right move by pinch-hitting Marcus Thames for Ramiro Peña with a runner on third and nobody out. Thames failed to accomplish the seemingly simple task of hitting a fly ball and wound up striking out.
That's when Buck Showalter took Girardi to school.
The Orioles intentionally walked Mark Teixeira, who entered as a pinch-hitter for Brett Gardner, and Derek Jeter to load the bases for Lance Berkman, forcing him to bat right-handed, a side of the plate from which he hits a stellar .173. Berkman, of course, grounded into an inning-ending double play and the Yanks went on to lose in the bottom half of the inning.
But the bigger question is why were Alex Rodriguez and Teixeira, two guys with a combined 212 RBIs, coming off the bench in the 11th inning? Shouldn't perennial All-Stars be in the starting lineup this late in the season when their team is still playing for something?
If guys are healthy enough to pinch-hit, they should be healthy enough to start in a league that uses a designated hitter. And if you really feel the need to give one of them a day off, then don't compound the problem by resting both of them on the same day.
Girardi has been doing this all month with A-Rod, Teixeira, Nick Swisher and Gardner and so it's no surprise that the Yankees are averaging just 4.41 runs per game in September, after putting up 5.43 per game in the previous five months.
Let's take a look at the pitching matchups for this huge four-game set with the Rays.
Monday, Sept. 20 - Ivan Nova (1-0, 4.30) vs. Matt Garza (14-8, 3.88)
With Andy Pettitte rejoining the rotation, the Yankees have opted to keep the rookie Nova as a starter ahead of Javier Vazquez, a guy they traded for this past offseason who is making $11.5 million. That should tell you how much of a failure that deal was.
Nova has pitched pretty well in his five starts, dominating the Rays over his first four innings last Tuesday before being touched up for six runs in the fifth.
Garza was just as bad in that game, allowing six runs on nine hits and two walks over 4 2/3 innings. He took a no-decision in New York's 8-7 win in 10. The right-hander has served up six home runs in his last two outings against the Yanks and Red Sox.
He is 1-3 with a 4.11 ERA in 11 career games (10 starts) against the Bombers, including a 7.71 mark in two no-decisions this season. Garza had a 6.17 ERA at the old Yankee Stadium, but has surrendered just one earned run in 12 innings (0.75 ERA) at the new ballpark.
Jeter is 9-for-30 (.300) off him, Robinson Cano is 10-for-27 (.370) with two homers, A-Rod is 9-for-20 (.450) with two long balls and Swisher is 6-for-13 (.462) with three blasts. So they better all be in the lineup.
Girardi may sit Teixeira again, though, as he is just 2-for-18 (.111) against Garza. Gardner is 1-for-11 (.091) with six strikeouts and Berkman is 1-for-10 (.100).
This would be my lineup for the opener: Jeter SS, Swisher RF, Teixeira 1B, A-Rod 3B, Cano 2B, Curtis Granderson CF, Jorge Posada C, Austin Kearns DH, Gardner LF
Tuesday, Sept. 21 - Phil Hughes (16-8, 4.31) vs. James Shields (13-12, 4.86)
This is a rematch of Wednesday's 4-3 win by the Rays, during which Hughes pitched well other than surrendering a pair of two-run homers to Dan Johnson.
The right-hander is now 0-2 with a 6.59 ERA in September and 0-2 with a 4.97 this year against Tampa Bay. He is 2-3 with a 4.55 mark in nine career appearances (four starts) vs. the Rays.
Carlos Peña and B.J. Upton are both 3-for-9 (.333) off Hughes with Peña adding two home runs. But Carl Crawford is just 2-for-11 (.182).
Shields took a no-decision last Wednesday despite yielding just one run and striking out eight over 6 1/3 innings.
They don't call him "Big Game" James for no reason. He's 2-0 with a 2.51 ERA in five starts against the Yankees this season, but just 11-12 with a 5.35 vs. everyone else.
In his career, however, the right-hander is 3-7 with an ERA of 4.69 in 14 outings against the Bombers, including a 2-3 record and 5.62 ERA in the Bronx.
Jeter (16-for-47, .340) and Cano (16-for-38, .421, .868 slugging) have killed Shields, but their teammates haven't had as much luck.
Teixeira is just 6-for-31 (.194) with 13 strikeouts, Granderson is 2-for-29 (.069) with eight K's and Gardner is 1-for-9 (.111).
This would be my lineup for the second game of the series: Jeter SS, Swisher RF, Teixeira 1B, A-Rod 3B, Cano 2B, Marcus Thames LF, Posada C, Berkman DH, Gardner CF
Wednesday, Sept. 22 - A.J. Burnett (10-13, 5.08) vs. Wade Davis (12-9, 4.19)
The Yankees have to like what they've been seeing out of Burnett lately, who has put together four pretty good starts in a row. In his last outing, he held the Orioles to three runs over seven innings and most importantly, issued just one walk for the first time since July 23.
The right-hander has struggled against the Rays this season, however, going 1-2 with a 6.89 ERA. He is 12-6 with a 3.16 ERA in his career vs. Tampa Bay.
Crawford (17-for-52, .327) and Evan Longoria (12-for-31, .387) hit Burnett well, but that's about it. Upton is just 7-for-36 (.194) with 15 strikeouts and Peña is 5-for-35 (.143) with 13 K's.
Davis has been on a tear since the All-Star break, posting a 6-0 record and a 3.24 ERA. In fact, he hasn't lost since June. The right-hander's success includes starts against the Yankees. He is 2-1 with an ERA of 3.86.
Once again, Jeter (5-for-12, .417) and Cano (5-for-11, .455) lead the charge against a Rays starter, but expect Rodriguez to join the party as he is 4-for-11 (.364) with two homers against Davis.
Teixeira (1-for-9, .111, 4 K's) once again struggles, however, as does Swisher (1-for-7, .143).
This would be my lineup for the third game of the series: Gardner LF, Jeter SS, Teixeira 1B, A-Rod 3B, Cano 2B, Thames DH, Swisher RF, Cervelli C, Granderson CF
Thursday, Sept. 23 - CC Sabathia (20-6, 3.05) vs. David Price (17-6, 2.79)
When I purchased my tickets for this game in March, I had no idea I'd be seeing two Cy Young candidates battle for a division title, but I'm glad it turned out that way.
Sabathia picked up his career-high 20th victory in his last start against the Orioles, but it was what he did in his previous outing that really impressed Yankees fans.
The big lefty shutout the Rays on two hits over eight innings, but Price matched him pitch for pitch before Girardi lost his mind and sent out Sergio Mitre to serve up a game-winning homer to Reid Brignac in the 10th.
Sabathia has a tiny 1.84 ERA in four starts against the Rays this season, but he's received little run support as shown by his 1-1 record in those matchups. He is 8-4 with a 2.90 mark in his career vs. Tampa Bay.
Ben Zobrist is 7-for-22 (.318) off Sabathia, Kelly Shoppach is 5-for-15 (.333) and Johnson is 5-for-9 (.556) with two doubles.
Peña, however, is 4-for-35 (.114) with 19 strikeouts and Rocco Baldelli is 6-for-26 (.231).
Price is 2-0 with a 1.55 ERA this month, but he hasn't been as consistent against the Yankees. The left-hander is 1-1 with a 4.35 in three starts this year. He is 2-1 with a 3.22 mark against them in his career, including 0-1 with a 5.40 in three outings at the new Stadium.
New York's roster hits just .174 off Price and the highest batting average belongs to Swisher at just .273 (3-for-11, HR). Not surprisingly, the lefty Granderson is 2-for-13 (.154) with six strikeouts, Teixeira is 2-for-15 (.133) and Posada is 1-for-15 (.067) with seven K's.
This is really a game in which the Yankees will need to use small ball to score runs.
This would be my lineup for the finale: Jeter SS, Swisher RF, Teixeira 1B, A-Rod 3B, Cano 2B, Marcus Thames LF, Cervelli C, Eduardo Nunez DH, Gardner CF
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Jordan Schwartz is one of Bleacher Report's New York Yankees and College Basketball Featured Columnists. His book Memoirs of the Unaccomplished Man is available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and authorhouse.com.
Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org