Yankees face hot August nightsCritical slate of games continue this week on the road
Following a stretch of 29 games that saw the Yankees exclusively face teams that went into the All-Star Break with records under .500, the club is in the middle of a run that has it going up against some of the American League's elite. Not only have the Yankees vaulted themselves back into playoff contention, they are realistically within striking distance of their 10th straight AL East title, trailing Boston by only four games heading into Monday's series opener with the Angels after being as many as 14 ½ back earlier this year.
It hasn't been an easy road thus far; excluding a series with the Baltimore Orioles, Yankees opponents from August 10th thru the 30th were a combined total of 71 games over .500 when July came to an end. Here's a quick look at how they've fared thus far and what still lies ahead this month.
August 10th through 12th: The Yankees sweep a three-game series @ Cleveland
In the series opener, Phil Hughes outpitched one of baseball's breakout starts this year, Fausto Carmona, and the Yankees took the opener by a final of 6-1. Indians starter Paul Byrd had been 4-1 in the second half before the Game 2 with the Yankees, but then they blasted him for seven runs in the second inning of an 11-2 blowout win. Andy Pettitte ran into trouble in the series finale, but thanks to a timely pick-off play with Andy Phillips, he escaped major trouble. Mariano Rivera buckled down after allowing a run in the ninth inning, squashing Cleveland's attempt at a rally by retiring three straight batters following three straight hits to close a 5-3 victory.
August 16th through 19th: The Yankees take 3 out of 4 against Detroit
August 24th through 27th: four games @ Detroit
In the first series between the two clubs since Detroit eliminated the Yankees from last year's postseason, the Yankees gained a measure of revenge by taking three out of four against one of their chief rivals for a playoff spot in 2007.
The four-game set did not get off to a good start for them though, as Mike Mussina immediately put his teammates in a hole. He allowed a first-inning grand slam to Carlos Guillen in the opener, which the Tigers went on to win 8-5. Game 2 was a different story though, as Pettitte gave the Yankees eight innings while Jason Giambi supplied two home runs in a 6-1 victory. Roger Clemens and Chien-Ming Wang also turned in quality outings as the Yankees outscored Detroit, 14-5, in the final two games.
The battle of the top two offenses in the American League clearly went in favor of New York, where ex-Yankee Gary Sheffield was booed vociferously during a 3-for-15, no-RBI series. Sheffield could end up missing the rematch thanks to a nagging right shoulder injury.
August 20th thru 22nd: three games @ Los Angeles
The Angels capitalized on the Yankees' early-season struggles by sweeping them in April at the Stadium, but the July version of the Yankees took two of three from L.A. heading into the All-Star break. Right now, that's all that matters, not anything else that has happened in the Joe Torre era.
Hughes is easily the favorite in his match-up against fellow rookie Dustin Moseley in Game 1, but that's where the clear advantages stop for the Yankees. Mussina is slated to go up against red-hot Kelvim Escobar in Game 2, and it'll be Pettitte versus John Lackey in Game 3. Both are potential Cy Young candidates, with Escobar being especially hot lately; he's allowed three earned runs or less in each of his last eight starts.
In relief, the late-inning combination of Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez has been excellent as usual. The Angels have struggled offensively in the second half, but their home numbers are vastly superior to their road numbers in '07, so expect that to be the trend that holds to form.
August 28th through 30th: three games vs. Boston
With the Yankees so close to Boston in the AL East, warning sirens are going off throughout New England. Of course, these games don't need to have relevance in the standings to be highly anticipated, for they stand out on their own at any time of year.
However, the contests will also be important because they will mark Eric Gagne's introduction to baseball's biggest rivalry. Before having a good inning of work against the Angels on Sunday, Gagne had given up runs in five of seven outings for an ERA of 15.00. Early returns are showing that Brian Cashman did the right thing in preserving his young pitching chips and starting center fielder by passing on potential deals for Gagne.
This series at Yankee Stadium will be one of the most pressurized situations in the set-up man's career... will he wilt? Will he respond to the frenzied atmosphere? The main chip surrendered by the Red Sox in the Gagne deal, Kason Gabbard, has gotten off to a fine start in Texas, so no matter how well the former Cy Young award winner does, the phone lines will light up on Boston sports talk radio if he is ineffective against the Yankees.