Clinching early is quite a luxury for playoff-bound teams ... or is it?
Since 2000, only one eventual champion has clinched with more than 3 games left
The Yanks and Card have clinched their divisions; the Dodgers have a playoff spot
The AL Central race could go down to the very end of the regular season
CC Sabathia stood in the center of the Yankees sprawling clubhouse on Sunday afternoon celebrating their division championship and their official return to the top of the American League East. It was a perfect spot for the man who was at the center of the Yankees rebuilding efforts in the offseason and the center of their midseason surge that carried them from 6 1/2-games out in mid-May to a clinching celebration with still a week to go in the regular season.
Now it was champagne, and not the pressures of carrying a pitching staff that still has some question marks heading into October, that had drenched Sabathia's broad back. "Today feels unbelievable," he said with a broad smile worthy of a man who has gone 11-1 with a 2.36 ERA in the second half.
Perhaps nobody knows that feeling better than Sabathia, who is headed to his third straight postseason with his third different team, and who justified his massive $161 million contract by being exactly the hoss that the Yankees so desperately needed him to be. Certainly nobody knows better than Sabathia that he could use the week off that the Yankees have to rest his important arm, which has now gone over 225 innings for the third straight season.
Keeping their ace as fresh as possible is one of, if not the biggest, benefit the Yankees will find to having assured themselves of their spot in the postseason hierarchy, but it is not the only one. Before being drenched by a coterie of his players armed with beer bottles, manager Joe Girardi scanned his happy group of players and said, "Now we have a chance to play some guys who might be able to help us. Everyone in this room could mean a lot."
Girardi has seen the benefits to clinching early -- and the downside of having to fight to the regular season's finish. As a player, he was with the 1998 Yankees team that wrapped up the AL East in early September, then rolled through the postseason with a 11-2 record. He also played for the 1995 Rockies that won the wild card on the last day of the season and then got bounced out of the playoffs by the Atlanta Braves in four games.
So is this the right amount of time to be able to rest players for the postseason while still allowing them to maintain their edge? "I don't know that there is an exact right amount of time," Girardi said, wiping the champagne from his face. "I do know we don't play just to make the postseason."
Not to spoil the champagne party, but there is a bit of caution in recent baseball history. In this decade, only one eventual World Series champion -- the 2007 Red Sox -- wrapped up a playoff spot with more than three games remaining. To be sure, some teams in that time had known for weeks that they were headed to the playoffs, but didn't make it official until much later in the year. And there are other factors that are much more indicative of postseason success or failure -- a strong bullpen, home-field advantage, a healthy lineup, etc. -- but it is instructive at least to see how much time off recent world champions had before beginning their march to the title. Here is how much time remained for each of the would-be champs when they locked up their postseason spot:
2000 Yankees: 3 games left
Entering the final week of play, the Cardinals and Yankees have clinched their divisions, the Dodgers have wrapped up a playoff spot and it is only a matter of time before the Red Sox, Angels and Phillies do likewise. Yet there are still 14 teams mathematically alive for a playoff berth, but only the Twins in the American League and the Braves in the National League remain legitimate threats to overtake teams in front of them and steal a postseason spot.
At the start of the month, it seemed the Tigers would be in the same position as the Yankees. Instead, Detroit enters the final week facing a critical four-game series with the Twins in Motown starting on Monday night with just a two-game lead in the AL Central. The last time the Tigers played a regular-season series as cliché-inducing important was in 1987, when they swept the Blue Jays in the last three games of the season to surge past Toronto and win the AL East by two games. Three years prior, the Tigers had rampaged to a 15-game margin of victory in the division en route to their most recent World Series title, but three years later, Tigers star Jack Morris said, "In 1984, we won 111 games and basked in glory. But this feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration means much, much more."
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