When it comes to strange bedfellows, politics has nothing on the 2011 American League playoff race.
With only 10 games left, the Yankees sit comfortably atop the A.L. East. Barring a historic collapse, the team is all but assured of making the post season and nearly as likely to be entering October as a division winner. However, that doesn’t mean the Yankees are no longer involved in a pennant race. In fact, they are smack dab in the middle of a heated one.
The Yankees’ magic numbers are five to clinch the division and three to secure a playoff spot. Because all 10 of the team’s final games are against the Rays (seven) and Red Sox (three), Joe Girardi can’t rest on his laurels just yet, but if the Yankees are able to clinch sooner than later, it could set up a unique final week in which the Bronx Bombers are cast as both division champions and wild card spoilers.
With the Red Sox in the midst of a September free fall (the team has lost 15 of its last 20 games), the lonely eyes of Red Sox Nation have suddenly turned toward the Evil Empire for support. Even though five more games with the Orioles should boost morale somewhat, the depleted state of the Boston rotation likely means the Red Sox will need some help from their rival in order to hold off the Rays. In other words, for the next three days, diehard Sox fans will be pulling hard for the Yankees, even if they have to hold their noses while doing it.
Red Sox supporters can’t get too cozy with the enemy because over the weekend the Yankees will host Boston at the Stadium. The importance of those games will determined by how the next three days play out, but regardless, something will likely be at stake during the series. However, the final week is when things could really get interesting.
The Yankees’ schedule ends with three games in Tampa. Considering Joe Girardi’s penchant for resting several players at once, the lineups used by the Yankees on those days could be relatively light. Then again, if the Rays and Red Sox are still neck and neck, Girardi may be obligated to put forth a more representative lineup. Either way, if such a scenario comes to fruition, Red Sox Nation and Yankees Universe would converge on Bizarro World. For three games, the biggest Yankees’ fans in the world would reside throughout New England. Meanwhile, many loyal supporters of the Bronx Bombers would likely be rooting for the Rays to topple their team. Can the baseball landscape survive such a seismic shift in rooting interests?
The final irony in this wild card confluence is a large majority of Yankees’ fans will be rooting for Tampa to surpass Boston even though the Rays probably pose the greater post season threat (especially if Boston remains hampered by injuries during October). Some of that sentiment is borne solely of hatred spawned by the rivalry, but also imbedded is a latent respect for (and fear of) the Red Sox that has been inspired by the organization’s success over the past eight years. Of course, Yankees fans torn by this dilemma could always root for the Angels to overtake both AL East rivals, but considering how well Mike Sciosca’s teams have played against the pinstripes, Anaheim might be the worst of all three evils (not to mention one the Yankees would have to face in the first round).