The New York Yankees are currently 40-37, which is 6 1/2 games back of the first-place Boston Red Sox. Over the weekend, the Red Sox secured their second three-game sweep over the Yankees in a span of three weeks. They have not lost this many games to start the season against their biggest rival since 2009. That year, the club started out 0-8 against Boston before winning 9 of their last 10 meetings. That also happens to be the last time the Yankees won the World Series, so maybe this is a good omen. Regardless, there is no denying how brutal this series was for New York. Losing the series at all was less than ideal, but getting swept, and blown out in the final game, is probably the worst thing that could have happened to this team.
Struggles Against the AL East
The Yankees play 19 games against each of their AL East foes. Typically, the only way to win the division is to win the majority of games against your divisional opponents. The AL East has always been one of the toughest divisions in baseball. Even with the Baltimore Orioles having one of the worst records in the league, the other four teams are in playoff contention. Coming into 2021, it was thought to be a three-team race in the AL East. Those three were the Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays. However, the underdog Red Sox have been able to flip the script and be one of the best teams in the league. Anyone who follows baseball knows the Yankees have to do well against their division to make the playoffs.
With that said, let’s look back at the last time the Yankees won this division. In 2019, they finished with a 103-59 record, seven games ahead of the Rays. They went 17-2 against the Orioles, 14-5 against the Red Sox, 12-7 against the Rays, and 11-8 against the Blue Jays. That is a cumulative 54-22 record or a .710 win percentage. Even in 2020, the Yankees went 23-17 in 40 divisional games during the short season. For the most part, they played good baseball against their division in ’19 and ’20. The same cannot be said about the 2021 Yankees. So far, they have played 41 games against their AL East foes. However, the only team they have played above .500 baseball against is the Orioles, with a 6-4 record. In total, the Yankees are 17-24 against the four other AL East teams. Those 24 losses are already more than they had against the division in all of 2019.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
This is an accurate framing of the season for New York thus far. The Yankees offense started clicking during this month, yet it’s clear that this sweep by Boston was two steps back. Five of the six games between the two clubs could have gone either way. They were close games in which one or two big hits by New York could have swayed the series in their favor. However, close is not good enough. Factors like athleticism, lineup diversity, and situational hitting are what separate the two teams on the field. So, if this series was the “two steps back,” then what was the one step forward?
The one step forward was the previous nine games that the Yankees played before coming to Boston. With three games apiece against the Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics, and Kansas City Royals, the Yankees went 7-2. This includes a sweep of the Blue Jays in Buffalo. This stretch of games is the best stretch of baseball they have played all year. They pitched well, scored runs, and battled their way to comeback wins.
Before their series in Toronto, the Blue Jays had really had their way with the Yankees. The Athletics are a good team with one of the best records in the league. The Royals do not have a great record but they are a scrappy team with one of the lowest strikeouts rates in the sport. Even though the Yankees were not playing their best baseball, they were finding ways to win games against good teams and come through when it mattered most.
Manager Aaron Boone summed it up best on Sunday after the loss, talking about the inconsistency of the team. The phrase, “one step forward, two steps back” has defined the Yankees this year as they have been unable to put themselves into a position to make a consistent run and leap in the standings. With an overall 40-37 record, the Yankees have gone 23-13 against non-divisional opponents. However, if they do not pick up the slack against the AL East, then the team is not making the postseason. There are too many good teams in the division, so New York cannot afford to play poorly against them. The Yankees do not play an AL East opponent until after the all-star break, but they have to continue winning against teams in other divisions if they want any chance of even staying in contention. Because, as of right now, they aren’t getting it done in the AL East.
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