Last night, after a lonely 8-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, the dream came to an end for the New York Yankees. For just the second time in 19 years, there will be no postseason baseball in the Bronx, which feels a bit like no State Fair in Wisconsin.
The nature of their dream is telling of the nature of their season. The Yankees have always been a team that sets its sights on the World Series, but this year expectations were tempered. With a roster depleted by injuries, they became an improbable underdog story, scratching and clawing to stay in the fight. If they could just squeeze into the playoffs, everyone thought, man, wouldn’t that be something?
And boy they were close. On September 13th, after taking three of four from Baltimore, the Yankees’ Wild Card deficit was a tantalizing one game. They were in Boston that weekend, and the standings stared at them from the Green Monster in left field, inviting them, daring them, to dress up for the October Ball.
But without Derek Jeter and Brett Gardner, two big-game competitors, the Yankees buckled, losing three straight to their rivals. By Sunday night, the deficit had swelled to three games, a crippling derailment from which the team would never recover. The Red Sox, who simply had the Yankees’ number all season long, sent Joe Girardi’s club into a 3-8 slide, and handed the Fat Lady the microphone.
If the season was killed in Boston, it was placed on life support in early August. Coming out of the All-Star break, the Yankees had a critical string of 17 games, first against teams ahead of them and second against teams begging to be beaten. But the then-anemic offense mustered just over 2.5 runs per game during that stretch and the Yanks won a mere five of 17. It all culminated, you might remember, in a three game sweep to the White Sox, a team that had lost 10 straight entering the series.
The Yankees weren’t quite this feeble at the plate for the entire season, but they were close. Before a late August surge, the offense was one of the worst in baseball. From April to August, The Bronx Bombers, typically known for flexing their muscles with the Red Sox, Cardinals and Rangers of the League, were floundering in the same offensive class as the Twins and the Padres. No disrespect to those organizations, but that’s like Floyd Mayweather hitting the gym with yours truly.
Of course, that’s what happens when you trot out the lineup the Yankees did for much of the season. The 56 players that suited up in pinstripes this season – a franchise record – included David Adams, Zoilo Almonte, Luis Cruz, Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Reid Brignac, Chris Nelson, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez, J.R. Murphy, Melky Mesa, Thomas Neal, Corban Joseph and Travis Ishikawa. Not even the most obsessive baseball fan knew who half of those players were in April.
That motley gang played in 207 games this season, and combined to hit .237 with 7 homeruns and 45 RBI. Chris Davis had that many homeruns by game number 17. By contrast, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Jeter played in just 133 games, handing their lineup spots over to the likes of Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay and Jayson Nix. And though the replacements filled in admirably at times, apologetically at others, they were placed in an impossible position. Granderson, A-Rod, Teixeira and Jeter provide a Joba-sized portion of the Yankees’ offense, and the hole left in their absence was simply too big for the remaining guys to fill in.
Fortunately for the Yankees, the pitching staff did its best to conceal this flaw from April onward. They were lead virtually all year long by Hiroki Kuroda, who pitched so valiantly for the Yankees it was hard not to cringe every time he took a loss. Even with the offense refusing to score runs for him, Kuroda put the team in a position to win every single time he pitched this summer. A late-season (and admittedly costly) collapse might cast his season in a different light, but if it weren’t for Hiroki’s heroics the Yankees would have been buried sometime in July.
As for the club’s purported ace, it was a year to forget. CC Sabathia, a man who made just under $23 million this season, was just about unremittingly awful. Weakened by a diminished fastball, Sabathia was shockingly hittable from his first start to his last, and gave up more knocks this season than every single pitcher in the majors but three. Save the abomination that was Phil Hughes, and Sabathia was arguably the biggest (healthy) detriment to the Yankees in 2013. He vows to return to form next season, but with a visibly tired arm it’s hard to imagine CC halting this free-fall.
In reality, the pitching was strong because the bullpen was strong. Boone Logan put together his best season as a Yankee, Shawn Kelley, who materialized out of mist, emerged as a lockdown middle reliever and David Robertson was his usual dominant self. And wasn’t there someone else?
That’s right: the toast of the town. So though it hurts that these ragtag Yankees couldn’t will themselves into the playoffs, it must be remembered that this season was all about Mo. And in his final act, The Great Mariano dazzled us all one last time. Despite the recently-repaired ACL, despite the emotionally-taxing farewell tour across America, despite the 19 years on his right arm, the 43-year-old Rivera racked up 44 saves while pitching to an ERA of 2.15. That marks the second time since turning 40 that he has eclipsed his age in the saves department, the other coming in 2011. Now let that sink in, for a little.
Good? Okay. For as brilliant as Mo was on the mound this season, he was doubly so off of it. From Seattle to Tampa Bay, he went out of his way to thank those faceless ballpark employees that keep baseball running, all the while radiating warmth and sincerity, faith and humility. He talked to cancer patients, to bomb victims, to war heroes, to grieving family members, and listened to their stories. He inspired some, healed others, and lifted them all. And they, he’ll tell you, lifted him.
The Yankees close the year in Houston, and on Sunday evening, this odd, star-crossed season will be in the books. It’s not how any of them wanted it to end, but they can take pride in knowing that they made the Yankees likeable again. For the first time in a long time, fans outside of New York were actually pulling for the Evil Empire, realizing there was an incredible message of defiance and resolve in the way this team battled.