On Monday, the Yankees blew a five-run lead and needed two homers in the bottom of the ninth in order to walkoff against the Red Sox. The following day they did the same thing, except this time it was their closer who gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth. On Wednesday, they got stomped by Wade Davis and the Rays, yielding double-digit runs for the first time all season. And yesterday Andy Pettitte had by far his worst outing of the season and the Rays once again piled it on, with four homeruns.
There is now more distance between the Yankees and the first-place Rays (5 games) than between the Yankees and the fourth-place Red Sox (3.5 games), and the Bombers have dropped eight out of twelve. They are still on pace for 99 wins, so isn't necessarily time for desperate measures, but there are several causes for concern in the Bronx.
In the preseason, I got a lot of mileage out of the observation that the Yankees were the only team in 2009 who had eight regulars with 500+ plate appearances and four pitchers who made 30+ starts. My point was that New York was likely to face more injuries this season and, unlike the Rays and Red Sox, I wasn't sure the Yankee roster was equipped to deal with such turmoil.
Already the Yanks have had to send Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson, Chan Ho Park, and Alfredo Aceves to the disabled list for extended stretches, while several other players, most notably Mariano Rivera, have dealt with minor injuries that have made them unavailable for a few games at a time. As a result, Marcus Thames, Francisco Cervelli, Sergio Mitre, Randy Winn, Ramiro Pena, and Juan Miranda have all seen increased playing time. The damage has been minimized by the fact that Thames (1001 OPS), Cervelli (904 OPS), and Mitre (3.32 ERA) have played exceptionally well, but the odds are certainly against them maintaining those numbers through prolonged exposure.
Injuries aren't the only cause of concern. Prior to having three hits on Thursday, Derek Jeter had endured one of the rougher slumps of his career (.190 AVG over 18 games). He has only four extra-base hits in May and his strikeout rate is way up, while his walk rate is way down. It's probably just a slump, but with Granderson and Johnson out of the lineup, it's unfortunate timing.
Javier Vazquez has been a notorious disaster. His 8.01 ERA leading to him being skipped on a couple occasions in recent weeks. In his last start he managed seven strong innings against the Tigers, easily his longest outing of the season, evidence perhaps that he's on the mend, but the New York media has been quick to scapegoat him and his dreadful second half in 2004 remains an open wound for many Yankee fans.
A. J. Burnett was dominant in April and had a 1.99 ERA after six starts, but in his last three outings he's allowed sixteen earned runs in seventeen innings of work and walked as many batters as he's struck out. Burnett has always been prone to hot and cold streaks, so this is probably nothing more than that, but again, with Vazquez struggling, Pettitte nursing a minor injury, and even Sabathia turning in a couple of poor mid-May starts, the timing has been unfortunate.
Clearly, New York has some breathing room due to their hot start, but with Boston getting healthy and Detroit surging as well, they can't continue to lose two out of every three games for too much longer. After a challenging road trip to Minnesota, the Yankees will play thirteen of their next sixteen games against Baltimore, Houston, and Cleveland, three of the four worst teams in baseball so far in 2010. They'll have a chance to get healthy and pad their record a little before heading into a relatively challenging interleague schedule (v. Phillies, v. Mets, @ D-Backs, @ Dodgers).
The next six weeks could see New York and Tampa Bay distancing themselves from everybody else in the American League on the road to becoming the first duo of team to win 100+ games in the same division since the Mariners and Athletics did it in 2001. Or, we could see the AL East's Wild Card dominance threatened. Only one time in the last seven seasons (Detroit, '06) has the AL Wild Card come from another division.