(Yankees center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury – Neil Miller / Sportsday Wire)
The Yankees had a tough weekend, as they lost three of four to the Toronto Blue Jays, but their win Sunday afternoon showed they are still very much alive in the playoff chase.
The Yankees (78-64) are just 3 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays (82-61) for the top spot in the American League East as of Sunday night.
That is not much considering the Yankees are in the race every year and the Blue Jays have not been in this position since 1993. Experience and how the teams cope with injuries will definitely play a role down the stretch. It sounds simple, but when you’re talking about one team that has just missed the playoffs three times since 1993 and other on a 22-year postseason drought, it becomes magnified.
The Blue Jays swept the doubleheader from the Yankees on Saturday, but it was a Pyrrhic victory of sorts, as shortstop Troy Tulowitzki left the first game of the day in the second inning when he collided with center fielder Kevin Pillar on a pop-up by Didi Gregorious.
Pillar was coming in while Tulowitzki was backing up and Pillar went smack into Tulowitzki’s back. Tulowitzki made the catch, but laid on the ground for a few minutes before he got up and promptly was removed from the game.
It came out during the second game that Tulowitzki was diagnosed with a fractured shoulder blade and upper back muscle bruises. He will be out at least two weeks with a broken scapula.
Tulowitzki has had an injury history, as he missed 113 games in 2012 due to a groin injury, and then 64 games last season due to a hip injury.
Tulowitzki has provided the Blue Jays with the same lift Yoenis Cespedes has provided the Mets, and their surges in the standings have mirrored each other.
The Blue Jays were 50-50 when they brought in Tulowitzki, in second place, 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees. They have gone 32-11 since then, and a big part of that is Tulowitzki getting five home runs and 17 RBI in 39 games. Though he has hit just .234 in his time in Toronto, he has a .316 on-base percentage. Overall for the 2015 season, including his time with the Rockies, he is hitting .278 with 17 homers and 78 RBI.
The Blue Jays also acquired starting pitcher David Price, who has been 6-1 with a 2.28 ERA in his time with Toronto.
Price has played a key part in Toronto’s run, but there is a big difference between a pitcher who takes the mound every fifth day and a player who anchors a key position on the field like shortstop and was hitting in the middle of the order. There is a lot of pressure on Ryan Goins and Cliff Pennington, who will be splitting the time in shortstop in Tulowitzki’s absence.
It will be interesting which injuries will matter more in the final three weeks – the Blue Jays losing Tulowitzki or the Yankees losing their best starting pitcher, Nathan Eovaldi, and first baseman Mark Teixeira in the past week.
The Yankees’ ace in the hole against Toronto is Masahiro Tanaka. After the Yankees gave up 30 runs in the first three games of this weekend’s series, Tanaka slammed the door shut on Sunday afternoon, as he allowed no runs, four hits, and struck out seven in seven innings to help the Yankees win 5-0.
This was Tanaka’s third straight strong outing against the Blue Jays in the past six weeks. On August 9th, Tanaka went six innings, and allowed just two runs on three hits, with five strikeouts and no walks in a 2-0 Toronto win. Six days later, Tanaka went the distance, allowing just one run and five hits, with eight strikeouts and three walks, in a 4-1 Yankees win.
With that in mind, the Yankees should have Tanaka go on normal rest and pitch Friday the 18th against the Mets, and then the 23rd in Toronto.
The Yankees’ schedule from here on out is very favorable, starting with the three-game series they open Monday night in Tampa Bay against the Rays.
After that, they travel over to Citi Field for the big Subway Series with the Mets over the weekend, and then go to Toronto for three games with the Blue Jays.
Then after that, they come home for four games each with the White Sox and Red Sox, and close the season with three in Baltimore.
Their only tough games are the three each against the Mets and Toronto, and the positive is that they play well in both places. Last season, they won both games at Citi Field and historically have played well in Queens, be it at Shea Stadium or Citi Field. They walked into Toronto in August and took two of three after being swept by the Blue Jays the prior weekend at Yankee Stadium.
The Blue Jays might actually have an easier schedule than the Yankees. They have three at Atlanta starting Monday night, followed by a nine-game homestand, with three each against the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays. They close the season with a seven-game road trip with four in Baltimore and three in Tampa Bay. Their only tough games should be the three with the Yankees.
The Orioles, who are tied for third place with Tampa Bay, at 69-73 as of Sunday night, will play a big part in the last week of the season. They have had a nasty rivalry with Toronto all season, and they just took two of three from the Yankees in New York. The Orioles would like nothing more than putting a dent in both teams’ postseason plans.
With the division race still very much in play, the Yankees are firmly in a wild card spot. They hold the top of two wild card spots, with a 3 game lead over the Texas Rangers. After Texas is the Minnesota Twins, who are 4 behind the Yankees, and the Angels, who are 6 back.
The Twins and Angels have really tailed off in the second half, and it would be a shock if either of them take one of the wild card spots currently held by the Yankees and Rangers.
The Rangers (75-67) are also very much alive in the American League race, as they are just 1 1/2 games behind Houston (77-66) as of Sunday night. The Rangers host the Astors in a big four-game series starting Monday night.
The only certain thing in the American League playoff picture is that Kansas City will be the American League Central champion. Other than that, the fates of the Yankees, Blue Jays, Astros, and Rangers can go in many different ways over the next few weeks.