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Pennant race can be good thing for Yankees

Photo: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke/Newsday

The Yankees finished the tomato can of their schedule by sweeping the 100-loss bound Texas Rangers in a 7-3 victory on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium.

After being swept and outclassed by the Toronto Blue Jays two weeks ago at the Stadium, the Yankees played 13 games of teams not making the playoffs. They finished 8-5 by losing two of three to the underachieving Mets, a win against the punching bag Minnesota Twins, winning two of three against the perenially rebuilding Baltimore Orioles, losing two of three to the hapless Cleveland Indians to go along with the sweep of the Rangers.

This stretch helped the Yankees stay afloat in the wild-card race with the Red Sox and Blue Jays playing well.

Now, the final exam begins. The Yankees will go on a six-game road trip that starts Friday against the Red Sox at Fenway Park and ends next Thursday against the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. Then, they will finish the season by playing the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays at the stadium.

If the Yankees make the playoffs, they will earn it. One can make a case those three teams are better than the Yankees. One can make a case either of them can represent the American League in the World Series.

The Red Sox find ways to win all season long despite a questionable pitching staff that gives out runs like candy. The Yankees will meet them on a seven-game winning streak at Fenway, of which they are 49-29 this season. For them to get to 89 wins is a testament to the job Alex Cora has done as their manager. There was a reason they were happy to bring him back as a manager after having him basically go on a leave of absence last year in light of the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing cheating scandal he participated in a few years ago as the Astros coach.

The Blue Jays entered the wild-card race by going 16-5 in September. The Yankees witnessed how great the Jays were by giving up 10 home runs to them in the Jays’ recent sweep. There are no easy outs in the lineup with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. playing like a favorite to win the AL MVP by hitting 46 home runs and driving in 105 runs. The Jays are also hard to beat at home by boasting a 43-31 record.

The Rays should clinch the AL East, but don’t expect to roll over to the Yankees. They want to be sharp heading to the playoffs, and they want nothing better than to eliminate their hated rival. The Yankees don’t respect the Rays, even after the defending AL champions beat them in the AL Division Series last year. There’s no way Rays manager Kevin Cash won’t relish the opportunity.

For the once cocky Yankees fans, it sounds like a death sentence. For the Yankees, it’s an opportunity.
Give the Yankees this much. They may have underachieved, but they grinded enough to hang around despite injuries and underachievement. That’s a credit to the players, and most importantly, beleaguered Yankees manager Aaron Boone.

Boone has not panicked. He kept managing, and the players fed off from that. They enjoyed his leadership throughout this tough season. This is why no one should be surprised if he is retained as the Yankees skipper after this season. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman believes in him, and Boone validated his faith by having the Yankees hang around. For Cashman to retain his manager, he needed a reason to, and he got it.

This stretch should be a good thing for the Yankees. It can toughen them up heading to the playoffs like iron sharpening iron. They know now there’s a sense of urgency in a sense there’s no more room for error. It’s now or never after using up all their lifeline this season.

For Yankees fans, they are not used to this. The last time the Yankees had an honest-to-goodness playoff race was in 1995 when they competed for the first-ever wild-card berth. This is certainly different for them. There has been more consternation than enthusiasm about this pennant race. The Stadium appeared dead weeks ago.

In a way, it’s comically amusing to see them squirm.

The Yankees embrace this. Aaron Judge mentioned enjoying the ride of a pennant race after his three-run, ninth-inning home run tied the game at five against the Twins that paved the way for the Yankees to beat the Twins. Boone talked about his team showing heart and how this was not meant to be easy.

For this young core of Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and Judge, this stretch serves as a referendum to show they are capable of being stars in a big moment. They haven’t had much of an opportunity to show what they are in a big spot.

This is as good as it gets for them. They will earn the label of being a Yankee if they step up in this tough stretch. That’s the beauty of this stretch.

After decades of meaningless regular-season baseball since everyone knew the Yankees were a layup to make the playoffs, this is refreshing.

So sit back and enjoy, Yankees fans.

Maybe you can appreciate how hard it is to actually win and be great.


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