Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Upcoming Toronto Series Starts Gut Check Time For The Yanks

The Yankees are fresh off their second 9-game road trip of the season and this past one was the tougher of the 2.  3 games against a red hot Royals club, 3 against an unexpectedly competitive Seattle team, and 3 against the best team in the American League in the A's.  They came through it with a positive 5-4 record, although those results did little to help them gain ground in the AL East race.

That race comes back into full focus for the next month, starting tonight when the Yankees host division-leading Toronto for a 3-game set.  It will be the first of 5 straight series against AL East opponents, including another 3-gamer in Toronto this time next week, and 12 of those 15 games will be played at home.  Tonight marks the first time the Yankees have faced a divisional opponent since the first week of May and the first time they've faced the Blue Jays since the second series of the season when they took 2 of 3 in Toronto.

A lot has happened since that first meeting, most notably the Jays riding a May hot streak to the top of the division.  They boast the best offense in the division and one of the best in baseball, and they've gotten just enough pitching to make all those runs stand up and turn them into wins.  The Yankees have battled injuries and inconsistent performance from almost all parts of their roster since that early April meeting and, much like last year, are hanging around near the top of the playoff race despite their subpar offensive production and negative run differential.

The Yanks will send their best starter to the mound tonight in Masahiro Tanaka to face one of Toronto's injury subs in Marcus Stroman.  Tomorrow night the roles will be reversed when injury replacement Chase Whitley takes on Jay ace Mark Buehrle, and on Thursday it will be David Phelps and Drew Hutchison, a matchup of 2 young starters trying to establish themselves as legitimate rotation options for the future while battling inconsistent performance in the present.  The Yankees will also be looking to recover some sense of offensive consistency after sputtering in the final 2 games in Oakland and will likely need to be able to stand toe-to-toe with Toronto's big bats to win games.

Basically, this series is going to be a better gauge of how seriously the Yankees should be taken as contenders in the AL East than what we've seen for the last month.  We've seen them sweep the Mariners, almost get swept by the Twins, and pretty much everything in between those extremes for the last 6 weeks.  What we haven't seen is them go up against the clubs that know them best and that they're going to see the most of down the stretch.  This 15-game run of interdivisional matchups is the start of definition and decision time on who the Yankees truly are this season.  Can the underperformers in the lineup start to hit?  Can Joe make the right moves to jump start the offense?  Can the pieced-together rotation stay consistent enough to give its team chances to win?

Can the Yankees be real competitors for the division title and/or Wild Card spots this year?  And should the front office look to add pieces at the trade deadline to help that effort?  We should start to find out the answers to those and all the other questions over the next month and we should start to get the first bits of supporting evidence for those answers in this next series.  However real both teams' results have been, the Yankees are going to face the best team in the AL East 6 times in the next 9 days and they need to show something against them.  Spring time is over.  Now it's winning time.

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