It’s not so much that CC Sabathia turned in one of his worst starts as a Yankee last night. Or that Joba Chamberlain didn’t do much to bail him out when Sabathia left with the bases loaded after just five and a third innings. Or that Javier Vazquez — who did go three innings, at least — hit an astonishing three straight batters in what could prove to be one of his final outings in pinstripes. It’s not even that they squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-1 (ultimately losing 10-3), on a night when David Price didn’t have his best stuff, either. The reasons Tampa Bay has emerged as the smart bet to win the East, even when they’re still a half-game down, has less to do with what’s happened than with what’s coming up.
The Yankees have six games left with what’s left of the Red Sox, and three with Toronto. Meanwhile, the Rays play three of the worst teams in the American League: Seattle, Baltimore, and Kansas City. Factor in that Joe Girardi’s been managing his bullpen lately with an eye toward keeping everyone rested and healthy, and that the mysterious Hughes Rules may come into play (somehow) in the final week of the season, and that Tampa’s win last night gives them the division if the two teams finish tied, and the wild card looks increasingly realistic for the Yankees.
It would mean playing a Minnesota team that currently has the best record in baseball, and doing so without home-field advantage. It would mean facing Francisco Liriano in Game 1. But it also means avoiding Cliff Lee, who’s still Cliff Lee despite a brutal August. And the Yankees have previously owned Minnesota in the playoffs, for what it’s worth. That’s enough to stay at least a little optimistic on an otherwise gray day in Yankeeland.