Yankees, Mets’ Run For the Playoffs Begin Now
By Michael Avallone
The days are getting shorter and in a few weeks, the leaves will begin to turn from a rich green to different shades of red, orange and yellow. While the temperatures here in the New York-area are still summer-like, the baseball season has a definite “autumn feel” to it.
The Yankees and Mets are in the same position for the first time since 2001. Four years ago, the Bombers were readying themselves for a fourth consecutive trip to the World Series while the Amazins’ were trying to buoy the spirits of a city that was raw from the terrorist attacks. Although they ultimately fell short, the Mets were able to crawl within 3 ½ games of the Atlanta Braves after being as many as nine out in early August. The Yankees were three outs away from their fourth straight championship, only to see it evaporate with their ace closer on the mound.
Now in 2005, the casts are a bit different. The playoff chases less cut-and-dried. But here comes September and the Yanks and Mets seem to have saved their best for a photo finish. The Yankees are not rounding themselves into playoff shape, as their fans have come to expect, but after falling as many as eight games below .500 in mid-May, the Bombers have the best record in baseball since the All-Star break to lead the wild-card standings by a ½ game.
On the other side of town, the Mets season seemed to be on the verge of collapse after the gruesome collision between Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron a few weeks back. However, Willie Randolph’s team has shown an ability to come out swinging every time they look like their season is about to flat-line. Still not considered wild-card favorites, the Amazins’ are only ½ game out of a playoff spot after last Tuesday’s dramatic win over the Phillies.
The Yankees have roared back into contention doing what they do best: mashing the ball. The big bats of Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Jason Giambi have catapulted the team to just 2 ½ games out in the AL East. And they are also here, surprisingly, because of their pitching. But the quality starts have not come from the Randy Johnsons, Carl Pavanos or Mike Mussinas. Who would have thought that the names Shawn Chacon, Al Leiter and Aaron Small would be the ones to stabilize the rotation?
The Mets are in play because David Wright has already become the superstar many predicted and because Pedro Martinez has been, well, Pedro Martinez. But who could have guessed that Jae Seo would put up Roger Clemens-type numbers in August? Or that Ramon Castro would hit like Mike Piazza after the future Hall of Famer went down with a broken bone in his hand?
For much of this season, Mussina was the only stable thing in the Yankees rotation. Now, he will miss his next turn with irritation in his pitching elbow. The Bombers starting staff is hardly ideal, but it sure beats the early days of summer when Sean Henn, Darrell May and Tim Redding were getting starts. Now they may actually have somewhat of a surplus with Small pitching in the bullpen and Chien-Ming Wang on the horizon.
The Mets, on the other hand, have no such problems. With the healthy and eye-opening return of Steve Trachsel last week, Randolph now has six serviceable starters at his disposal. It is a delicate situation though, and handling it appropriately – several veterans, Trachsel among them, are scratching their heads at Randolph’s decision to put the veteran in the bullpen – is paramount to the Mets success over the next month. Still, at this time of year, it is far better to have too many starters than too few.
The Yankees have a big weekend series in Oakland against the A’s, who like the Yanks, are battling for both a division title and the wild-card. The Bombers also have six games left against the Devil Rays, who they can’t seem to beat; eight against the Orioles, six against the Blue Jays and – most important – six against the Red Sox, including a season-ending; three-game series at Fenway Park that very well could decide the playoff picture.
The Amazins’ will wrap up their brief, three-game homestand with the Phillies and begin a brutal 10-game trip that starts in Florida, and takes them to division leaders in Atlanta and St. Louis. It only gets harder as the Mets do not play a team with a losing record again until they close with four at Shea against the Colorado Rockies.
In order for the Mets to reach the postseason for the first time since 2000, they desperately need Carlos Beltran to play like a star to survive the grueling schedule and their maddeningly inconsistent offense. How will Wright and Jose Reyes handle the pressures of a playoff-chase? Can Braden Looper be counted on to nail down saves when the heat is on?
The Yankees have their own set of problems, and even though they solved several issues this season, they never fixed their poor defense in center field. Robinson Cano has gone from a surefire rookie of the year candidate to a near automatic out. Then there’s the 6-10 Johnson, who has pitched like a 41-year-old and less like the ace he was brought here to be.
The Mets and Yankees both have bothersome elements they need to overcome in September but the two teams are very-much in play for the postseason. Thirty-days. That’s what the season has come down to.
Sit back and enjoy the ride.