On August 7, the Yankees were leaving Chicago in tatters. They had just been dealt a debilitating sweep at the hands of the AL Central's bottom-feeding White Sox, including a heartbreaking 12th-inning defeat in which Yankee relievers blew not one but two leads in the process. At 57-56 and 7 games back of the second wild card slot, the Bombers weren't just at the periphery of the AL playoff race -- they were beyond it. And, two-weeks-worth of games later, they hadn't even managed to make up much ground. Despite marginally improving their W-L ration to 64-59, they nevertheless remained a daunting 6.5 games back of that final playoff spot on August 20.
Now they've erased that deficit to only 2.5 games.
What's changed? Well certainly the pitching, for one. Ivan Nova has been nothing short of transcendent in recent weeks, winning the AL Pitcher of the Month after a 4-0, 2.08, 31 K performance through August. Andy Pettitte has emerged in rejuvenated form after battling a prolonged midseason slump. He's dropped his ERA 0.77 runs from where it stood on August 5, and turned a ugly 7-9 record into a more palatable 10-9 (and he would be 11-9 if not for a shaky decision from manager Joe Girardi last weekend). Similarly, former ace CC Sabathia has improved his own record to 13-11 from 9-10 on August 2, but his efforts haven't been as pretty as Nova or Pettitte. His ERA still resides close to 5 and his 28 home runs in just 29 innings are the most he's allowed in his career. Sabathia's improved numbers are really just the result of run support more than his own contributions--something that he'll need to fix if the Yanks truly hope to bridge that 2-and-a-half game gap between themselves and Tampa.
But what's interesting about the 2013 Yankees isn't so much that they're suddenly competing for a postseason berth, but how they're competing and who has them competing for a postseason berth. The Yankees, at least the Yankees of the 21st century, have a well-deserved reputation as the Evil Empire, the Goldman Sachs of baseball. They're widely detested for outspending and outslugging any and every opponent. But this 2013 club is different. Last year New York came in second in the entire MLB in runs scored, and led the majors with 845 combined home runs (Texas came in second--31 dingers behind that pace!). This season? The Yanks are 16th and 22nd in those respective categories. And yet resilient and competitive they remain.
Think about who the Yankees have depended on for productive contributions throughout this bizarre season. Long gone are the years of for-hire, big-money pinstripe gunners like Gary Sheffield, AJ Burnett, Jason Giambi, Kevin Brown. This year's Yankee team instead is relying on a veritable island of misfit MLB toys, from Lyle Overbay, to Mark Reynolds, to (the inexplicably still breathing) Vernon Wells. Even the Yankees' most celebrated recent acquisition, Cubs' slugger Alfonso Soriano, is somehow both heralded and yet underrated simultaneously. Soriano's power has been off the charts since arriving in the Bronx, and yet when the outfielder hit his 400th career home run on August 27, sportscasters both local and national (skip to 20:50) revealed they had no idea Soriano was even close to such a distinguished milestone to begin with! Mariano Rivera, the greatest to ever close a game, is embarking on one of the most touching farewell tours in baseball history. The Yankees are winning in scrappy ways; they're no longer praying for big bats to bail them out, but are manufacturing runs via small ball. Stolen bases, batting around the order, game-winning hits from utility bench players? This isn't the imposing machinations of an Evil Empire--it's the characteristics of the plucky underdogs.
Oh but ah, my many devil's advocates claim, what about Alex Rodriguez? What of that fallen figure, the third baseman with as many millions in his checkbook as games in his suspension. Surely that sinner's continued existence in a pinstripe uniform ensures that no amount of small-ball and team-play can ever truly obfuscate the Yankees' inner Evil Imperialism, right? Well, like everything else in this loopy, unforgettable, unpredictable month that has revitalized this long-considered failed Yankee season, I would argue that the answer on Rodriguez is no longer so cut and dried. And for that we have Red Sox pitcher and would-be judge/jury/executioner of baseball's blessed sacraments Ryan Dempster, who changed the entire narrative on A-Rod with a few highly-dubious bean balls.
And then A-Rod did this.
And a man who had never been more alone, more scorned, more barren of friends or allies, suddenly saw the narrative on all three of those counts change. He's heated up at the plate. He has had his fellow peers and many sportswriters come to his defense this summer in a volume nobody could ever have predicted possible.
And the Yankees are 11-5 ever since.
And winning as a team. Winning with revitalized pitching. And cooperative hitting. The Yankees aren't winning with money in 2013 so much as with a makeshift, cobbled together bootleg version of Moneyball. Whether it will ultimately result in an actual playoff appearance has yet to be determined. Whether it will even continue over to next year remains doubtful, too. But all I know is that I've enjoyed watching it unfold immensely.
So go ahead. Keep nurturing your instinctive disdain for all things Yankee, keep clinging to the tired clichés and familiar insults for how they run their franchise. Keep doing all that if you please.
But you'll only be missing out on some fabulously inspiring play as a result.