Yankees will regret not trying harder to win the AL East
Instead of pushing to win division, Yanks spent last series setting up for playoffs
As a result, New York lost home-field advantage but won't face Cliff Lee in Round 1
Yankees still have solid lineup, but lack of pitching will stand in way of repeat
The Yankees were in Boston over the weekend and they did not look like a team poised to win another World Series.
The Yanks came to Fenway Park last Friday with a chance to win the American League East. Early in the weekend it became apparent that winning the division was not their top priority. It's the new October game plan: after clinching a playoff spot, teams prepare for the postseason. They strive to stay healthy and get their pitching in order. They do not try to finish first in order to gain bragging rights or home-field advantage.
Sometimes they just want to avoid Cliff Lee.
And so the Yankees lost two of three to the out-of-contention Red Sox and coughed up the American League East flag. They settled for the wild card.
Home-field advantage made no difference to the Yankees. They will open the playoffs on the road in Minnesota, instead of opening at home against the Texas Rangers. If they make it to the second round, they will start on the road again. World Series, too.
I am not Joe Girardi or Brian Cashman, but this makes no sense to me. If I worked for the Yankees (and if George Steinbrenner were still alive), I would have tried to win the AL East. I would have worked for home-field advantage, and an opponent with fewer wins (Texas).
I would have attempted to beat the Red Sox.
The Yankees did not do this. Girardi used 17 pitchers in three games against Boston's Triple-A lineups. The Yankees concentrated on getting ready for the playoffs. And now they will play a superior team, on the road, in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Wednesday night.
I spent last week in Los Angeles as a panelist on ESPN's Jim Rome Is Burning. On Friday afternoon, while the Yanks were in Boston in the cramped visitors' clubhouse (New York had 56 players on its roster for the final weekend), I was on TV expressing my thoughts about the Yankees' apparent disinterest in winning the AL East. I warned that it could be tough on the Bronx Bombers if they went to Minnesota for Game 1 and lost the first game with CC Sabathia on the hill.
Back in Boston, the Rome show aired live in the visitors' clubhouse. When Alex Rodriguez heard me casting doubt on the Yankee strategy and painting a doomsday scenario against the Twins, he walked over to the clubhouse TV and turned it off.
Sunday morning in Boston, when the Yanks still had a chance to win the division, I sauntered over to A-Rod's locker at Fenway and asked him why he turned me off on the clubhouse TV.
"Too negative,'' said the Yankee slugger. "I didn't want our young players to hear that.''
This is probably just one more example of A-Rod being a faux leader of the champs, but it made me wonder about the Yankees strategy for the postseason.
"Don't you want to win the East and get home-field?'' I asked Rodriguez.
"I always think home-field advantage helps,'' said Rodriguez. "It's always our preference. But we're in a good place. I think we're ready to roll.''
After making those comments, Rodriguez went out and played in an 8-4 loss to the Red Sox, assuring that the Yankees would be a wild card entry in this year's postseason.
Obviously, the Yankees wanted to stay away from Lee and Texas lefty C.J. Wilson. New York likes its chances against the Twins. The Yankees are 22-8 against Minnesota in the last four seasons. They are 9-2 in the postseason against the Twins, including last year's sweep. The Yankees went 4-2 against the Twins this year, but have not seen them since May.
New York's lineup remains daunting. It has perhaps the greatest infield in the history of baseball: Mark Teixeira at first base, Robinson Cano at second, Derek Jeter at short and A-Rod at third. The Yankees have Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli behind the plate. They have Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner in the outfield. They have a DH tandem of Lance Berkman and Marcus Thames. Pretty good.
But pitching is a problem. After Sabathia, the rotation is suspect.
Girardi has Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett to follow Sabathia, but will probably go with three starters in the division series. No Burnett.
Pitching was a problem in September when the Yankees' staff ERA swelled from 3.89 to 4.03. The Yankees lost 17 of their final 26 games. The Twins went 18-12 in September/October.
The series starts Wednesday night. The Yankees aren't going to have to face Cliff Lee, but they may live to regret not doing more to finish first in the American League East.
Dan Shaughnessy is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Read more of his columns here.
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