For the Yankees, September baseball has been more meaningful than anyone would have thought back before the All-Star break. Injuries and triumphant returns. Dugouts packed with late-season call-ups. The Orioles and Rays in the rear-view mirror. This year, the objects in the mirror truly were closer than they appeared.
On Monday night the Orioles opened a three-game set against the Seattle Mariners with a win, putting them a half game behind the Yanks. Both the Yankees and the Orioles are playing four out of five of their final series of the season against sub-.500 teams. You can bet that the O’s are looking at their schedule as a chance to make up for lost time, so the Yankees need to see theirs as a golden opportunity to remain in first place. In other words, they need to win the games they’re “supposed” to win.
Despite the rampant injury bug that has plagued the Bronx Bombers, they should not underestimate the power of positive thinking. When the slumps and injuries start to get them down, here are some mantras to write on the bills of their caps.
1. The big five are back. For the first time since June, the Yankees rotation looks the way it was meant to this season: Sabathia, Kuroda, Hughes, Nova, and Pettitte. On Saturday Ivan Nova returned from a three-week stint on the disabled list with a solid pitching performance that helped the Yanks triumph over Tampa 5-3. He pitched into the seventh inning, giving up two runs and striking out eight.
Andy Pettitte will return to familiar territory tomorrow against the Blue Jays. (Tuesday night’s game has been postponed because of the weather. The Yankees and Jays will play a doubleheader on Wednesday.) He threw a simulated game last Wednesday, but will be limited to around 70 pitches tomorrow.
Aside from injured players returning, the Yankees have also been the beneficiaries of healthy pitchers stepping up and performing to potential. Phil Hughes has given the Yanks at least six innings and two or less earned runs in four of his last five starts. Hiroki Kuroda has also performed well this month. Yankee pitchers must continue their quality starts, especially if the bats are streaky.
2. Small ball wins games. The major advantage of late-season call-ups is that now the Yankees can actually run. Back in the beginning of the season, Eduardo Nunez’s demotion to the minors after several costly errors was justified. It seems to have been productive, too; Nunez looks more than capable at shortstop now, having fine-tuned the position and defined his role as Derek Jeter’s backup. Nunez’s speed has helped win games as well. On Sunday he stole three bases in a game that also included sacrifice bunts by Nick Swisher and Ichiro Suzuki.
Alex Rodriguez also had a stolen base. In addition, the Yankees have called up Chris Dickerson, another speedster. And from the wildly optimistic files, Brett Gardner could be activated this week. He won’t be available to hit this season, but he could be used as a pinch runner or defensive replacement.
3. O captain, our captain: Derek Jeter for MVP. Throughout the ups and downs of 2012, Derek Jeter has been synonymous with consistency. The man who always says everything right off the field was the man who did everything right on the field this season. Jeter may not be the home run king that Miguel Cabrera is, but the definition of an MVP is the player who makes the greatest contribution to his team.
Jeter leads the league in at-bats and hits, and is currently a close third in average at .323. His 15 home runs and 55 RBIs may not be as flashy as Cabrera’s and Mike Trout’s numbers, but no one can deny Jeter’s unbridled ability to carry a team on his shoulders. He is currently playing through a bone bruise, but you wouldn’t know it thanks to his .370 batting average over the last ten games and his shut-up-and-play attitude.
Baseball bloggers, take note: it’s time to seriously bring up Derek Jeter’s name in MVP conversations.