There is blood in the water in The Bronx and the sharks are beginning to circle.
On the morning of July 19, after completing a sweep of the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium the day before, the New York Yankees woke up with a 10-game lead in the American League East. Life was good.
Thirty-eight days later, the Blue Jays are back in town and suddenly there is reason for concern.
That 10-game lead? It’s been sliced to four games and the Tampa Bay Rays, once a speck in the distance, just keep getting bigger and bigger in the Yankees’ rear-view mirror. And don’t look now, but the Baltimore Orioles are right there behind the Rays, breathing down the necks of the Yankees.
“I don’t think I’m going to go jump off a bridge or anything like that,” New York manager Joe Girardi said, after being swept by the White Sox last week.
Maybe not, but the Yankees are accustomed to standing by in September, amused by the failures of their chief rivals, the Boston Red Sox, who usually manage to choke in the month. Never in the imperious history of the Yankees have they had a double-digit lead in games, at any point in any season, and been overtaken down the stretch.
The Yanks did get some respite with the return of CC Sabathia to the mound Friday after a trip to the disabled list but that was countered by the loss of innings-eater Ivan Nova who is out with rotator cuff inflammation. Andy Pettitte is awaiting permission to go out on a rehab assignment before rejoining the Bombers, probably in mid-September.
Despite their $200-plus million payroll, the Yankees rotation is a very fragile thing right now, held together by Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes and rookie David Phelps. Kuroda has been a tower of strength but even he stumbled, failing to get a win over lowly Cleveland in his last start Saturday.
Alex Rodriguez was hoping to get medical clearance over the weekend to start taking batting practice after breaking his hand on July 25. And while he has been having a mediocre year for him, his absence has diminished the left-handed bats of Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. A-Rod was hitting .349 with a couple of homers in the 11 games before he went on the DL and his fill-ins at third base — Eric Chavez, Casey McGehee and Jayson Nix — productive until early August, have gone a collective 3-for-35 in the last nine games.
The Rays relentless pursuit was slowed somewhat over the weekend when they lost two of three to the Oakland A’s but they still have six games head-to-head against the Yankees. The tenacious, improbable Orioles have seven games against New York.
The Yankees may yet discover, as Boston so often has, that September can be the cruelest month of all.
n Instead of wearing down, 38-year-old Derek Jeter just gets better. In August, he’s hitting .386 with an OPS of 1.024, 5 HR, 22 runs and 14 RBIs.
n In his last 10 games, closer Rafael Soriano has allowed six hits, one walk, zero runs and has converted all seven save opportunities.
n In the past two weeks, Nick Swisher has averaged .396 with a 1.212 OPS to go with five homers and 15 RBIs.
n Curtis Granderson’s home run rate has slowed in August, but not his strikeout totals. Already with 155 punchouts on his card, he’s on pace to surpass Jack Cust’s single-season AL record of 197.
MONDAY 7:05 p.m. RHP Henderson Alvarez RHP David Phelps
TUESDAY 7:05 p.m. LHP Ricky Romero RHP Phil Hughes
WEDNESDAY 1:05 p.m. LHP J.A. Happ LHP CC Sabathia
Looking at the pitching matchups, the Yankees might be vulnerable with Phil Hughes on the mound in the middle game. The Jays roughed him up for nine hits and seven runs in four innings at home earlier this month. Rookie David Phelps has held his own in starts against the Rangers and Red Sox in his last two outings and CC Sabathia has been terrorizing the Jays hitters for years (13-3, 3.00 in 17 career starts). Given the sad state of affairs with the Jays right now, this is a good spot for the Yankees.
The best the struggling Blue Jays can hope for in the Bronx is to escape with a win in this three-gamer that has suddenly become meaningful for the Yankees.