I think I’ll let Tyler Kepner of The New York Times have the floor on the state of the Yankees (and the Mets). What’s going on following last night’s sweep of Toronto in the Bronx and Mitchell’s terrific pitching is downright exciting. Only a couple of games to win and the Yanks would right there for the Wild Card and what fun would that be?
The story lines are compelling. The Mets were battered and broken, over and over, by serious injuries to significant players. The Yankees were presumed dead by their own hand after trading several stars.
Yet here they are: The Mets are in a virtual tie with St. Louis for the second National League wild-card spot, and the Yankees trail Baltimore by just two and a half games. You can see it now, a plausible scenario coming into focus out in the distance. It might not be fair, but it is modern baseball — and it is really benefiting the New York teams.
The Mets could keep bashing homers and scrap their way into the wild-card game. With their soft schedule, they very well could host it, and win behind Noah Syndergaard, their one remaining power arm from last fall’s World Series.
That would set up a division series date with the Chicago Cubs, the team they eliminated in the championship series last October. Imagine the jangling nerves around Wrigleyville if Bartolo Colon weaves his magic and wins Game 1.
The Yankees, with their young sensations and revived veterans, could elbow past the field to earn a spot in the American League wild-card game. They almost never lose with Masahiro Tanaka pitching (they are 13-2 in his starts since mid-June), so they could use him and barge into a division series with the Texas Rangers.
Now, the Cubs and the Rangers have spent all season proving they deserve a shot at the World Series. The Cubs were 40 games over .500 before Wednesday’s games, and the Rangers (83-56) were the first A.L. team to clinch a winning record.
Good for them. But this will be the fifth postseason to include a second wild card, an entrant riding a wave of momentum into the postseason party. Everybody starts over then, and whoever wins the wild card is bound to be hot. The Yankees, now 73-65, fit the profile.
“We kind of have nothing to lose,” Mark Teixeira said Wednesday, after a 2-0 victory that lifted the Yankees to a season-best eight games over .500. “We’re just having a good time. It’s been really fun watching these young guys contribute, whether it’s offensively or the pitching staff. It seems like every single day a guy that hasn’t been with us most of the year is coming up and doing a great job for us.”
The Yankees had used eight pitchers in Tuesday’s wild win, and on Wednesday they found three others to stymie Toronto’s big bats: Bryan Mitchell, Luis Severino and Tyler Clippard. Three pitchers earned saves in the series; that had not happened for the Yankees in 19 years.
The Yankees, who were 52-52 at the Aug. 1 nonwaiver deadline, have turned a stale season into one of discovery. Every night, it seems, they find new answers within their roster. They added just enough veteran relievers at the deadline — Clippard and Adam Warren — to give themselves a chance despite the trades.
“We’ve been playoff baseball really since about Aug. 1, because we knew the importance of those games,” Manager Joe Girardi said. “I think we were .500 after the first four months, and we knew that that wasn’t going to cut it.”
The Yankees would be a menace in the playoffs, the kind of team nobody wants to play. Their late surge could threaten to undo the season-long excellence of the Rangers — the team that gladly poached their All-Star outfielder, Carlos Beltran, in an Aug. 1 trade.
But that is the modern playoff format, designed to make the sport more exciting down the stretch. More interest in more markets means better business for baseball, even if real greatness can be trumped by the fifth team in the field.
Lifelong baseball fans do not need five playoff teams in each league to love the game. But there are not enough purists out there to expand an industry worth more than $9 billion, so here we are. The Mets and the Yankees still have a chance.
Do you remember that the Washington Nationals were the best N.L. team in 2012 and 2014? Maybe not, because they lost both times to the second wild-card team — the Cardinals in 2012, the San Francisco Giants two years later. Last fall the Cardinals felt the same kind of sting: They won 100 games in the regular season, but went nowhere because the second wild-card team — the Cubs — knocked them out.
The second wild card can seem like a participation trophy, but remember that Major League Baseball’s playoff field is still smaller than those of the N.F.L., N.B.A. or N.H.L. The 2014 Giants used it as their entry ticket en route to a World Series victory. They all count the same.
For the Mets, a playoff spot would be a reward for perseverance after season-ending injuries to David Wright, Matt Harvey, Lucas Duda and Neil Walker. Starters Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are down, too, and it is hard to count on them coming back. Even Syndergaard is pitching with a bone spur in his right elbow.
Yet the Mets have gone 14-4 since Aug. 20, the weekend Yoenis Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera returned from the disabled list. After sweeping the woeful Reds, they play 19 of their last 22 games against teams with losing records.
“There’s nothing like coming to the ballpark in September when it means something,” Manager Terry Collins told reporters in Cincinnati Wednesday. “The energy is better. The aches and pains don’t seem to hurt as bad. We’re fortunate to be where we are.”
Let the Cubs and the Rangers fret about what might happen in October. For the New York teams, September is a blast — much more fun than they had could have ever expected, thanks partly to the forgiving playoff system that keeps them alive.
They are lucky indeed that the rest of the field is peeling away, just as the Yankees are lucky that trading great players sparked a turnaround.