The Yankees are currently one game behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East, and though this is significant — it’s the first day the Yankees haven’t been in first since June 13 — Yankees fans don’t seem all that terribly concerned. And why would they be? They still have a five-and-a-half-game lead in the wild card, and their playoff odds are 93 percent. This isn’t 1993: We have a wild card now. Nothing to worry about at all. But it still seems like a pretty good idea for the Yankees to go ahead and try to win the division, while they’re thinking about it.
The main reason the AL East title is so important: playoff seeding.
The winner of the AL East will have home-field advantage for the ALDS and (potentially) the ALCS. The wild-card team, even if they have the second-best record in baseball, will be on the road throughout the postseason. (In the World Series, the National League has home field no matter what, of course.)
The real issue here is the first round, the ALDS. Whoever wins the division will host the AL Central champion, likely either the White Sox or Twins. Neither of those teams are particularly strong, and they’re quite weak in the rotation; they’re the types of teams likely to be batted about by the Rays’ and Yankees’ relentless lineups. (Plus, you get home field if you play them.) Finish second in the AL East and get the wild card? Your reward is a road series against the Texas Rangers and Cliff Lee, the pitcher who has vexed the Yankees (and everybody else) the last few seasons. You’ll face Lee twice, actually. The difference between the Rangers and the Twins/Sox is dramatic.
Sure, the wild card is a nice crutch. But it’s a weaker one than usual this season. Winning the AL East, it’s a big deal. All of these games are important.
By the way, it was fun just to write the Red Sox off in this conversation, wasn’t it?