Now, the Yankees are playing with something to lose
Perhaps sometime in the next few days, the Yankees players can gather ‘round the clubhouse fireplace*, cups of steaming hot cocoa with marshmallows in their athletic hands, and gaze at the pinstriped elders Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia while posing a relevant question:
“What’s it like to be a favored Yankees team in a postseason series?”
The two wise men can stroke their beards, chuckle and say, “Boys, buckle your seatbelts.”
Get ready for a Baby Bombers gut check. If they think they knew pressure before, just they wait.
When the Yankees, fresh off their first American League East title since 2012, open their AL Division Series with the Twins on Friday night in The Bronx, they’ll do so as the favored entry, and therefore the club with more to lose.
Forget about the wild-card games, three of which the Yankees hosted from 2015 through 2018, going 2-1. You reach the wild-card contest because you fell short to someone else, so the expectations can rise only so high. Whereas an ALDS loss to their historic punching bags from Minnesota would set up the Yankees for the sort of disappointment they haven’t experienced since Gary Sanchez played at the Class A level.
Or do you not remember the 2012 AL Championship Series? Those Yankees, 95-67 in the regular season and having outlasted the Orioles in the ALDS, took on the Tigers (88-74) with the home-field advantage with the chance to reach the World Series…and fell on their faces, getting swept and drawing a particularly heated brand of rancor from their fan base over the roster’s age and style of play. By Opening Day of 2015, just four players — Gardner, Alex Rodriguez, Sabathia and Mark Teixeira — of the 26 guys who played in that series remained on the Yankees’ roster.
While an ALDS loss to the Twins wouldn’t set in motion that sort of cataclysm, it would heavily damage the goodwill created by this Yankees team’s “Next man up!” ethos and the roster depth which made that possible. It would mark a second consecutive campaign of failing to reach the semifinals after pushing the heavily favored Astros to seven games in the 2017 ALCS, which they did after climbing out of an 0-2 hole to oust the heavily favored Indians.
A win over the Twins and a subsequent ALCS loss to the Astros hardly would turn into a pleasure trip itself, especially since Astros aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole both were made available to the Yankees in trade discussions before they went to Houston. There nevertheless exists a difference, when we’re discussing a team’s credibility, between losing to a superior club — as the Yankees did last year, when they couldn’t keep up with the dominant Red Sox in the ALDS — and suffering an upset loss.
A scout from a National League club observed, on the condition of anonymity, that “The Yankees are as vulnerable as they’ve ever been” this time of year, thanks to their seemingly never-ending slew of injuries. Even during this four-day preparation, the Yankees will try to sufficiently heal Edwin Encarnacion (oblique) as well as the recently returned Sanchez (groin) and Gio Urshela (left hand and left ankle), while Luis Severino is obviously not at full strength and James Paxton nearly set off a heart-attack epidemic with his left glute scare.
Whether you agree or disagree with that sentiment, you understand it. After everything the Yankees endured to get here, they ain’t done nothing yet. Throw in the 10-year drought since their last World Series appearance and title, and these guys face the sort of expectations which most have not experienced firsthand. If their next five (or fewer) games go poorly, they won’t be discussing this one at the clubhouse fireplace* years from now unless the elders want to share a horror story.
(*To my knowledge, no fireplace exists in the Yankees’ clubhouse. They’ll have to find some other way to burn the records of this season should the Twins finally best them.)
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