The race for the AL East title will come down to the wire. That much is certain.
But what remains uncertain is whether it'll be the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox who must endure the single-elimination Wild Card that could see a 100-plus win team bow out of the playoffs far too soon. Finishing second place in the division is a high risk with little reward, which is why every win matters, even this early in the season.
So when Aaron Boone pulled Aaron Judge from the lineup in Wednesday's matchup with the Phillies, sat second-string catcher Austin Romine, started Neil Walker at first base and had Luis Cessa make a spot start, you could somewhat understand the reasoning. The Yankees have a date with the Red Sox on Friday, a three-game set that has already seen the first six games of the season series split evenly. The Yankees can tip the scales in their favor, but they will do so as the second-place team in the division as the Red Sox enter New York firing on all cylinders.
A forgettable road trip
The Yankees were feeling good about themselves after sweeping the streaking Seattle Mariners, but that good feeling all but dissipated when they suffered their own sweep by the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays.
All credit goes to the Rays; they played the Yankees as an underdog ought to: aggressively. By the end of the series, it was clear the Rays had out hit, out pitch, and overall out-played the team who sat first in the division.
So when the Yankees entered game three of their three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies, there was an opportunity for the Yankees to negate the reality check the Rays had delivered to them. The first two games saw the Yankees ride strong pitching performances by Jonathan "Johnny Lasagna" Loaisiga and Luis Severino, but the penciling in of Cessa seemed to be Boone's admission he was looking to the future rather than the present. With Sabathia slated to pitch the series opener on Friday against the Red Sox, the aging southpaw will be on two days' extra rest. It would be expected Sonny Gray will see the second game, with Luis Severino pitching the series finale on Sunday night.
What ensued Wednesday was another disappointing performance by Cessa, who found himself ahead in the count most of the night in the three innings of work but failed to showcase a putaway pitch to retire a hitter. Instead, the Phillies made hard contact throughout, culminating in a three-run opposite field home run by Rhys Hoskins on a slider left up in the zone. Whether his removal from the game in the fourth inning was by design or based by performance is unclear; but it was another failed audition for Cessa, clear by his immediate demotion to Triple-A following the game.
Wednesday's game also featured an underwhelming offensive lineup. Aaron Judge was given a rest day, Giancarlo Stanton batted second, Aaron Hicks hit third, and Didi Gregorius was the cleanup hitter. Backup catcher Austin Romine, who'll receive plenty of playing time with Gary Sanchez on the DL and out until after the All-Star Break, was also given the day off for third-string catcher Kyle Higashioka, who has yet to record a hit in 20 MLB at-bats. Greg Bird, albeit struggling mightily, was replaced by the equally underwhelming Neil Walker.
This, as it appeared from the beginning, was a throwaway game. The Yankees turned in an uninspired performance, sustaining no offensive pressure in any inning. The bullpen remained steadfast, highlighted by another scoreless Jonathan Holder appearance and an efficient single inning by Domingo German. But the talk of the night was Hoskins' blast and Zach Eflin becoming the second pitcher in baseball to throw at least seven scoreless innings against the Yankees this year.
Instead of closing out the road trip at an even 3-3, the Yankees went 2-4. They've gone from two games in first place to trailing the Red Sox by a half-game, but can still reclaim the top spot this weekend.
But wins are vital. The Red Sox continue to pummel their opponents, matching the Yankees stride for stride. Settling for a first-place Wild Card is too much of a risk; anything can happen in a single game.
Boone's decision to rest several key components on Wednesday is understandable, and with a scheduled day off on Thursday, the hope is the Yankees will field a fresher and better rested team than the Red Sox on Friday. And it can be said the Yankees always rise to the challenge against playoff-bound teams; they're 25-10 in that regard, and they'll be defending their home field, where their 29-11 home record is the best in baseball.
If the Yankees win the weekend series against Boston, this will all be rendered moot. But if they fail to make up lost ground, they'll lament the lost opportunities from some very winnable games.