It is nearly a month before the All-Star Game, there are still around 90 games left on the schedule and yet, for almost all of the American League, it feels like September. That is, virtually every team is firmly in one of two camps — jockeying for the playoffs or already looking toward next season.
So, there may have been a bit more juice than usual at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, as the Yankees, during their 7-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners, had a chance to eye a team they may well see more of in October.
The Mariners, who have been streaking since losing their star, Robinson Cano, to an 80-game suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy, were tamed by a sterling performance from the right-hander Domingo German and a string of home runs by Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Aaron Hicks and Gleyber Torres.
German allowed only two hits — a leadoff double by Dee Gordon and a seventh-inning solo homer by Nelson Cruz — and nothing else in seven innings, retiring 19 consecutive batters at one point. He struck out nine — including Kyle Seager three times — before A.J. Cole retired the final six batters. Andujar’s two-run homer off left-hander Marco Gonzales in the fifth, which made it 3-1, gave the Yankees the lead for good.
It was the 15th victory in 19 games for the Yankees, but they needed it to make certain they would avoid falling behind Boston; they entered Tuesday in a virtual tie with the Red Sox, leading only by percentage points. After Boston lost, 6-2, to Minnesota late Tuesday, the Yankees had a one-game lead.
The Mariners are in a similar circumstance in the A.L. West, having won 13 of their last 18 but still fighting to stay within striking distance of the Houston Astros, who were chasing their 13th consecutive win on Tuesday night.
Only in the Central Division, where first-place Cleveland — which had the best record in baseball last season — has yet to show any signs of awaking is there anything resembling uncertainty over who is in and who is out of contention.
Eight teams began Tuesday at least 10 games out of first place in their division in the A.L. Presumably, those teams will not get significantly better as they begin to trade off useful pieces for prospects — a process that began earlier than usual Monday when Kansas City shipped closer Kelvin Herrera to the Washington Nationals on Monday for three minor leaguers.
So it is not necessarily a given that the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Mariners — who have the best records in baseball — will recede back into the pack over the grind of a long season.
If they keep up the pace with which they entered Tuesday, the Yankees would win 110 games, the Red Sox 109, the Astros 107 and the Mariners 104. It seems a strong possibility that the A.L. wild-card game could pit a pair of 100-win teams.
“Unless Tampa or the Orioles got crazy and won like 40 in a row, it’s going to be this way with Boston,” said Yankees ace Luis Severino, who is set to face Seattle’s best pitcher, James Paxton, in a series finale this week that may carry some autumn foreshadowing.
“All the past years it’s been like that, and last year. We’re on top, then behind, then we’re back in front. I think it’s going to be decided by the series we have against each other.”
The season ends for the Yankees and Red Sox with a three-game series at Fenway Park. It may take until then to determine who will be forced into the wild-card game.
Since the double wild-card format was adopted in 2012, only once has a wild-card playoff pitted two teams that have won more than 93 games. That was in 2015, when three teams in the National League Central — the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs — had the three best records in baseball. The Cardinals won 100 games, leaving the Pirates, with 98 victories, to host the Cubs, who had 97 wins, in a one-game playoff.
“You don’t want to be in that position, there’s no doubt about that,” said Yankees infielder Neil Walker, who played in three wild-card games with the Pirates and was on the Mets roster for another. Three times his team was shut out — including by the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta in 2015.
“Playing in a one-game series just to get to the division series — it’s a crap shoot,” Walker added. “You’ve played really good baseball for 162 games, and in 163 you kind of get it shoved — that was my experience on three of the four wild-card games. That’s how everybody felt — if you get the opportunity, you don’t want to be in that wild-card game.”
So, as long as the Yankees are being pushed by the Red Sox, they will continue to push back, hoping that if they do have to see the Mariners again, it is not back in the Bronx in early October for one game with their season at stake.