Quick hit: The Most Important Series of the Season (Until the Next One)

With twenty-four games left in the season, the Yankees sit a slim 1.5 games behind the first-place Blue Jays. This four-game set represents a chance not only for the Yankees to turn the tide, but also an opportunity for our neighbors to the North to build a far more comfortable lead. The stakes are incredibly high, to say the least. Since the last time the teams met (with the Yankees taking two of three), the Blue Jays have gone 14-6 with a plus-52 run differential (138 runs scored against 86 allowed). They enter tonight having dropped two of three to the last place Red Sox, in a series in which they were outscored 22 to 9. However, the two starters that were drubbed in that series (the struggling Merssrs Drew Hutchison and Mark Buehrle) will not be taking the mound for the Blue Jays this time around.

The Blue Jays offense has remained dominant, with usual suspects Edwin Encarnacion (.342/.420/.795), Josh Donaldson (.397/.446/.782), and Jose Bautista (.282/.422/.563) tearing the cover off of the ball since these teams last met. The pitching staff has been a bit up and down of late, but David Price has been his usual ace-y self (7+ IP per start, 2.15 ERA, 10+ K/9), and wunderkind Marcus Stroman is returning from an ACL tear this weekend.

In sum ... not much has changed. The return of Stroman is undoubtedly a big deal, yet this is largely the same group that the Yankees faced from August 14 through August 16. And, unless you believe that the Yankees taking that series was a fluke, there's little reason to suspect that they cannot do it again.

Here are the pitching match-ups: Today - Luis Severino vs. David Price Friday - Ivan Nova vs. Marco Estrada Saturday - Michael Pineda vs. Marcus Stroman Sunday - Masahiro Tanaka vs. R.A. Dickey

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Series preview: Four-game set with the Indians starts tonight

[caption id="attachment_77821" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Yanks vs CLE Here's hoping this series goes better than the last. Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] The Yankees current winning ways started in Cleveland last week. New York has won six of its last seven, and hope to keep adding numbers to that ‘W’ column when the Indians start a four-game series at Yankee Stadium today.

Here’s a glance at each game in the series:

Thursday, August 20: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Josh Tomlin

Nova has shown signs of improvement recently, having one real tough outing in his last five. For many of the Indians batters, this is their first look at Nova. The only Cleveland player with any amount of significant at-bats against him is Mike Aviles, and he has only had eight appearances against Nova.

Tomlin is making just his second start of the season. He’s gone through a series of injuries and rehab assignments in the last couple of years.

Matchup to watch: Ryan Raburn vs. Nova: 3-for-5, 1.200 OPS. Mark Teixeira (if he can play) vs. Tomlin: 4-for-13 with two home runs.

Friday, August 21: RHP Masahiro Tanaka vs. RHP Carlos Carrasco

Tanaka’s arm did not fall off this season despite what the doctors at the local papers were telling you. In fact, Tanaka is having a fine season and is coming off his best performance of the year having thrown a complete game and striking out eight against the Blue Jays on August 15.

Carrasco has pitched very well as of late. He has a 1.36 ERA in his last four games with 29 strikeouts in 33 innings.

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Strength Of Schedule

With a little more than two weeks left in the regular season, the Yankees have bounced back to within one game of a Wild Card spot. Playoff probability has the Yankees at their best odds since the end of July. Despite the hot streak, Baseball Prospectus still has the team at a 15% chance of making the Wild Card seed, and Cool Standings has them at a little over 20%. But for some reason, teams with worse records actually have a better chance. To get the most accurate odds possible, probability systems look at a whole year's worth of data. They calculate the runs allowed and runs scored, turn it over to the Pythagorean expectation, and figure out who is underperforming and overperforming. The Yankees look like overperformers, but a lot of that is due to circumstances which aren't calculated by these playoff probabilities. The Yankees have been a tale of two teams this year, and the current lineup is far superior than the one they played through mid-August.

I do believe that they have better odds of making the Wild Card than 15-20%, partly due to the unaccounted changes in their lineup. Another factor is their strength of schedule. With 18 days of regular season baseball left, we can now get a good idea of the Wild Card contenders and their competition through the end of September.

Date Yankees Opp W/L% Rays Opp W/L% Orioles Opp W/L% Indians Opp W/L% Royals Opp W/L% Rangers Opp W/L%
9/12 Orioles 0.531 Red Sox 0.605 Yankees 0.534 WhiteSox 0.400
9/13 RedSox 0.605 Twins 0.438 BlueJays 0.462 WhiteSox 0.400 Tigers 0.575 Atheltics 0.579
9/14 RedSox 0.605 Twins 0.438 BlueJays 0.462 WhiteSox 0.400 Tigers 0.575 Athletics 0.579
9/15 RedSox 0.605 Twins 0.438 BlueJays 0.462 WhiteSox 0.400 Tigers 0.575 Atheltics 0.579
9/16 Rangers 0.559 Royals 0.527 Indians 0.531 Rays 0.542
9/17 BlueJays 0.462 Rangers 0.559 RedSox 0.605 Royals 0.527 Indians 0.531 Rays 0.542
9/18 BlueJays 0.462 Rangers 0.559 RedSox 0.605 Royals 0.527 Indians 0.531 Rays 0.542
9/19 BlueJays 0.462 Rangers 0.559 RedSox 0.605 Astros 0.342 Rays 0.542
9/20 Giants 0.452 Orioles 0.531 Rays 0.542 Astros 0.342 Rangers 0.559 Royals 0.527
9/21 Giants 0.452 Orioles 0.531 Rays 0.542 Astros 0.342 Rangers 0.559 Royals 0.527
9/22 Giants 0.452 Orioles 0.531 Rays 0.542 Astros 0.342 Rangers 0.559 Royals 0.527
9/23 Orioles 0.531 Rays 0.542 Mariners 0.445 Astros 0.342
9/24 Rays 0.542 Yankees 0.534 BlueJays 0.462 WhiteSox 0.400 Mariners 0.445 Astros 0.342
9/25 Rays 0.542 Yankees 0.534 BlueJays 0.462 WhiteSox 0.400 Mariners 0.445 Astros 0.342
9/26 Rays 0.542 Yankees 0.534 BlueJays 0.462 Twins 0.438 WhiteSox 0.400 Angels 0.476
9/27 Astros 0.342 BlueJays 0.462 RedSox 0.605 Twins 0.438 WhiteSox 0.400 Angels 0.476
9/28 Astros 0.342 BlueJays 0.462 RedSox 0.605 Twins 0.438 WhiteSox 0.400 Angels 0.476
9/29 Astros 0.342 BlueJays 0.462 RedSox 0.605 Twins 0.438 WhiteSox 0.400 Angels 0.476
AVG  W/L% Yankees Opp 0.484 Rays Opp  0.515 Orioles Opp  0.536 Indians Opp  0.418 Royals Opp  0.496 Rangers Opp  0.495

The Yankees have a relatively easy schedule, especially after this weekend. Once they've wrapped up their series against the Red Sox on Sunday, the they not only have a couple of days off, but they get to play three out of four series against below .500 teams. The one series where they do play a contender is the Rays, a team that still leads the Yankees in the Wild Card standings, but is quickly floundering thanks to their rough schedule.

It doesn't get much easier for the Rays going forward. Although they play the Twins this weekend, Tampa Bay then faces the hungry Orioles, Yankees, and eventually the Blue Jays. Not to mention that the Rays don't have a single off day left. The Rangers series on Monday will end up being a huge factor in the Wild Card race. Here, the two teams currently in the lead for the two Wild Card spots will face off against each other in a four game series, and teams like the Yankees, Orioles, Indians, and Royals will have a guaranteed chance to make up ground on one of them for four straight days.

The Orioles have the toughest schedule, playing a handful of games against the Red Sox and Rays, as well as two series against the Blue Jays. You're probably saying that the Red Sox won't have much fight in the final series of the year. Boston will likely have their playoff spot all wrapped up, ready to rest players, but I highly doubt that they'll bow out. Why? They could have a chance to eliminate the Orioles from the playoffs and return a favor after the 2011 Red Sox elimination.

The Indians have the easiest schedule, and assuming they don't collapse by the hands of the Twins, White Sox, and Astros, they should be the biggest competition of any Wild Card contender. Hopefully the red hot Royals will be able to shut down the Indians in their three game series on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Royals have an interesting schedule. After a series against the Tigers, the Royals have a chance to decide their own future with games against the Indians and Rangers. They could do a lot of damage to teams that are currently ahead of them, which will be followed by games against the mediocre Mariners and unfortunate White Sox.

Which finally brings us to the Rangers. By now we know that the Rangers will have to defend their Wild Card spot against contenders like the Rays and Royals, but they also have to face the Athletics and Angels, who won't go down softly. Both teams did their part in the fall of the 2012 Rangers, taking 7 of the last 10 games from Texas. We could be looking at a repeat collapse of last year.

If the Yankees can survive through the weekend, the team has a strong schedule to look forward to. Most of the teams ahead of them have difficult matchups where they play superior teams or fight against each other for the same prize. The Indians could be a real concern, but with at least one series against the Rays, the Yankees have a chance to control their own destiny.

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This week in Yankees baseball

yankeeslogo Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays felt like some sort of time warp as Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano led the offense and Mariano Rivera recorded the win. All we needed was an Andy Pettitte start and I would have felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up from a nap started ten years ago. And I realized after watching the game that perhaps the owners that overruled Brian Cashman to go get Soriano made the right decision.

It is not that Soriano might carry the Yankees to a miracle comeback. Hardly anyone expects that to happen. But the addition gives the lineup some context for the fans. It has not just been that a bunch of fill-in starters have been penciled into the Yankees' lineup or that they have been hitting poorly. The problem as a fan was the lack of continuity. Losing so many regulars from the lineup meant that there was nobody we "knew" playing on a regular basis. It was like watching someone else's team for four months.

And I do not know how well Derek Jeter will hold up or even how well he will perform down the stretch. But it was someone we knew. It was a Yankee. The return of Soriano felt the same way. He was a Yankee.

So while we wait for the hammer to fall on Alex Rodriguez. And while the games this week will all be on West Coast time and finish in the early hours of the morning, at least there are a couple of names we can root for in the lineup. And Curtis Granderson will not be too far behind.

That said, a West Coast swing is never a fun stretch for the Yankees or their fans. After a day off today, the Yankees will play the Los Angeles Dodgers, the hottest team in baseball, for two games and then spend another off day to get ready to play the San Diego Padres for the weekend. At least the latter series seems doable.

So how does the week look? Let's take a look.

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This week in Yankees baseball

yankeeslogo The ESPN broadcast of the Yankees game at Fenway Park had all the memes covered. Joe Girardi is having his best managing year. The Yankees have done a great job of staying relevant despite their $100 million of DL injuries. CC Sabathia is transitioning into a guy who cannot throw 95 anymore. But at least one meme was missing and it was a noted absence: If the Yankees can stay close until they get some of their horses back...

The horses ain't coming back. Mark Teixeira we already know about. Curtis Granderson will probably come back. But Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter? It just does not seem to be in the cards. And it does not matter really. The Orioles, the Rays and the Red Sox are all better teams even if Granderson, A-Rod and Jeter all play the last fifty games.

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This week in Yankees baseball

yankeeslogo If someone were to tell me that the New York Yankees were to go 6-1 in the last week after the week they had   previously, I would have thought they were crazy. But as good a week as it was, that last game against the Orioles really hurt. Speaking as a fan here and not a journalist, I would rather see the Yankees lose in any other way than via a Mariano Rivera blown save. Ugh. The pits. That was brutal. And the thing about that Adam Jones homer was that, not only was it poor execution by Rivera on the pitch, but it was bad strategy by the battery as a whole. Jones will swing at everything, so to throw him strikes is...well...you saw the results.

All in all, it was a good week. So what will this week bring? Let's take a look in this latest version of "This week in Yankees baseball."

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This week in Yankees baseball

yankeeslogo Well...there has to be a positive spin in here somewhere. June is over? Yeah, that works. June is over. By any standard thrown out there by any team--never mind by Yankees' standards--June was a horrid month. The New York Yankees went 11-16 in June. They lost four and a half games in the standings. They were outscored by 32 runs in the month. The team came in last or next to last in all of baseball in most offensive categories. This current Yankees team has had so little going for them on the offensive side, that is has been...well...offensive. Wait. I started by searching for a positive spin. June is over. That is it. June.

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This week in Yankees baseball

yankeeslogo I was Sunday's game away from being dead on in my prediction for this past week. But the Yankee bats went silent against Chris Archer and the Rays' bullpen and pushed across just a single first-inning run. Sunday's loss left them at 3-3 for the week. And while playing .500 ball at home is a disappointment, the Yankees still managed to gain some ground on both the Red Sox and Orioles as both of those teams stumbled this past week. I feel like I am living in a glass-half-full / glass-half-empty kind of world. The good news is that the Yankees are still hanging in the same zip code as the division leader. The bad news is that what has kept them at nearly a .500 team for the last month continues: paltry offense, uneven starting pitching and inconsistency in the bullpen for people other than David Robertson and Mariano Rivera.

While Brett Gardner continues to be the best player on the team, the debut week of Zoilo Almonte sure was fun. It has been incredibly refreshing to have him take over in left field and hit the ball where it was pitched. Both of his doubles yesterday were to the opposite field. Vernon Wells is more palatable as a pinch hitter off the bench and he had one of the biggest hits of the week (year) in that capacity. His three-run double on Saturday doubled his June output for extra base hits. But Almonte has been the bomb.

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This week in Yankees baseball

yankeeslogo The last three weeks have been a wild ride for those of us who observe the New York Yankees on a regular basis. The last three weeks have produced the following results: 1-5, 6-1, 1-5. What the heck do you make of that mess? My predictions each week have not been remotely close with those kinds of wild swings. We all know the offense is putrid. We all know the pitching has been spotty. And the last couple of weeks have shown us that as much as we love our 43 year old closer, his last season is not going to be dominating as in the past. We can celebrate each one of his saves, but our hearts get in our throats just a little bit more than usual.

This week will be very interesting. First off, the Yankees come home finally after a long trip out west. That means that we can go back to normal sleeping patterns here on the East Coast. And the two series the team will play are both fascinating in their contrasts. Both will feature phenoms we have not seen before. So let's take a look at the week to come and see what this week in Yankees baseball will bring.

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This week in Yankees baseball

yankeeslogo Last week's post was all doom and gloom as the New York Yankees completed a 1-6 week. What a difference a week makes as the Yankees reversed that fortune exactly with a 6-1 week after sweeping the Indians and winning three of four from the Seattle Mariners. That one loss was, of course, the most frustrating game of the week as the Yankees allowed Jeremy Bonderman to win his first game since 2010. But, ah well, that was all but forgotten after coming out with a final series victory on a game that was started by Felix Hernandez, the great ace of the Mariners. That was a beautifully played game with Brett Gardner and Chris Stewart paving the way. The week allowed the Yankees to keep pace with the still-flying Boston Red Sox and the Yankees remain a game and a half off the pace.

The Yankees remain on the West Coast and will be out there all week, which is not easy on sleep patterns for those of us in the east. After a day off on Monday, the Yankees will play three games in the tomb where the Athletics play and then spend the weekend playing the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in California on the West Coast of America in the Northern Hemisphere on planet Earth. Ahem...I apologize as I cannot type the Angels' full name without adding my own little protest at the ridiculousness of it all. Anyway, here is a preview of the week to come.

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