So, after all that — the evaporation of a double-digit division lead, the injuries, the Orioles Magic down in Baltimore — the Yankees have won the American League East title. Last night didn’t quite bring the late-inning drama of the final night of the 2011 season: With their magic number at one, the Yankees had a pretty comfortable lead by the fifth inning, while the Orioles trailed from the first inning on in St. Pete. Of course, Yankees fans — who had to wait until the final day of the regular season to see their team clinch a spot in the ALDS — won’t complain. Drama like that is overrated when your team is involved.
What’s more, in an American League in which the four teams with the best records are separated by just two games, the Yankees clinched home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. They now await the winner of tomorrow’s Orioles-Rangers game. That’s an especially sweet outcome for the Yankees, considering how dangerously close they came to being remembered for blowing a double-digit lead in the division. It might not have been remembered as a collapse on the level of last year’s Red Sox — the Yankees didn’t finish any single month under .500 and went 20-11 from September 1 on — but settling for a Wild Card under those circumstances would have been hugely disappointing. (We’re of the mindset that winning a Wild Card in this new format isn’t terribly exciting if you can’t also advance to the ALDS, but it would have been especially unacceptable for a team that had once had such a big lead to have to play in that toss-up Wild Card game.)
Over the past few weeks, the Yankees have again shown signs that they could be dangerous in the playoffs — especially in a bracket that’s so wide open. (Again, four of the five teams finished within two wins of each other.) Whether they can put it all together in the postseason — quality starting pitching, hitting with runners in scoring position — remains to be seen, but they’ve been winning games at a good clip of late. They won four in a row to close out the season, and they’ve won ten of their last eleven home games. Some of those wins haven’t been pretty, and some of them have been against teams well outside the playoff picture, but the Yankees won ball games when they absolutely needed to down the stretch, and that’s an encouraging sign.
It must be said, though: Holy hell was Boston terrible over the final weeks of the season. The Yankees needed to rally on Tuesday to win, but over the three games of this series, the Yankees outscored the Sox 28-7. At least Boston is an equal-opportunity punching bag: They finished their season with fifteen games against the three AL East contenders. They went 2-4 against Tampa Bay, 1-5 against Baltimore, and 0-3 against the Yankees. They lost their last eight games of the year, when their opponents are especially desperate for victories. This is the opposite of playing spoiler.
This is one of the more difficult Yankees teams to get a feel for on the eve of the postseason, if only because it’s still a little hard to believe that they are — according to their record, as well as their run differential — the cream of the American League crop. We’ve seen Yankees teams finish in this spot before, but never have we seen one finish there after narrowly avoiding being remembered instead for a historic collapse. That’s no longer a concern now, though. The top-seeded Yankees open the playoffs on Sunday. Time — and opponent — to be determined.