With Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning rightfully dominating the headlines over the last two weeks, you might have stopped paying close attention to the Yankees. They were way ahead in the AL East, gearing up for the playoffs with only a few niggling concerns and, frankly, the two football teams have been a lot more interesting. So you're forgiven for taking your eye off the ball, but we can't be so merciful for the Yankees themselves.
Five losses in the last nine games have cost the Yankees four games in the loss column against the Red Sox, a precarious position to be in when your next six games are against the Angels and those Sox. A week from now it would not be at all surprising to see the Yankees in a tie atop the American League East, something that was unthinkable 10 days ago. That doesn't portend total doom and gloom, the Yankees will play October baseball one way or the other, but it does stand to make things a lot more stressful over the final two weeks than you'd like for an aging team.
The Yankees want to win the division and the Yankees will do everything they can to win the division, which means that they can't afford to find rest for players like Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada in advance of the postseason. It means that there's a chance that they'll have to use Mariano Rivera three straight nights to nail down saves that keep them ahead of the Red Sox, and it means that starts for CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte will be more than just tune-ups.
If worse comes to worse and the Yankees wind up as the wild card in the American League, it doesn't mean they won't wind up in the World Series. If recent history has taught us anything, it is that the playoffs are a totally different season. But recent history, specifically 2004, also taught us that these final games can impact what comes later. In 2004, Orlando Hernandez threw more than 120 pitches to win a September game and keep the Yankees on top of the AL East, but Duque's arm was shot and he was useless for the playoffs. Kevin Brown moved into the rotation, started Game Seven against the Red Sox and, well, you know how well that turned out.
All of this is playing out in front of a backdrop that sees the Red Sox, left for dead after their last visit to the Bronx, playing their most inspired ball of the year. Their lineup is cooking, Billy Wagner has toughened up their bullpen and even Daisuke Matsuzaka is pitching like a competent major leaguer. The gap that seemed so large when September began has all but disappeared, and the Yankees will have to defend what's left with everything they've got this weekend.
If they don't, it's a good bet that the Big Apple's two quarterbacks will stop being the only thing anyone's talking about in local sports.