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Yankees have 10 to go and are in a fight

09/24/2012 11:59 AM ET
By Jon Lane

Like his teammates, Eric Chavez knows what's at stake and the importance of not letting up.(AP)
It’s crunch time in New York, Baltimore, Oakland and a few other cities, as baseball’s September stretch run is rounding the far turn.

Here in the Bronx, the New York Yankees own a one-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East and the race has been breathtaking. Prior to each team losing on Sunday, the Yankees and O’s were riding winning streaks of seven and six games, respectively. According to the New York Daily News, the teams have been separated by no more than one game in the standings for 21 consecutive days since September 3, the longest such stretch in any division or league since the Yankees and Indians went 20 straight within one game of each other in 1951.

While the Orioles finish the season with seven home games against the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox before flying to Florida for three games with the Tampa Bay Rays, the Yankees’ road to the postseason is easier. They play the Minnesota Twins in St. Paul, travel to Toronto for a Thursday-Sunday set and end their campaign against the Red Sox with three at Yankee Stadium.

The three Twins pitchers the Yankees are facing are Liam Hendriks (5.88 ERA), Esmerling Vasquez (6.75) and Samuel Deduno (4.54). On paper, the Yankees (88-64) hold a major advantage. Alas, paper is a corporeal substance that neglects the intangibles. The Twins come off a weekend in which they enjoyed playing spoilers against a Detroit Tigers team fighting for its playoff life.

“I don’t know if it works to our advantage,” said Yankees infielder Eric Chavez of the team’s remaining games. “You’ve still got to play the games. But are we supposed to beat the teams that we’re supposed to beat? Yeah. So we need to go ahead and have another good week and try to finish this thing up as good as we can.

“There are two things at stake. Obviously we want to get in, and we want to be playing well to get in, too. We don’t want to back up into it. We want to gain some momentum.”

Also chasing the Yankees are the Oakland Athletics, the current holders of the second AL wild card spot, and residing one game behind the Orioles and two behind the Yankees. New York is in the driver’s seat – win your games, the magic number goes down and you’re in the playoffs – and arrived in Minnesota 25-6 against the Twins since 2009 (including postseason games).  But you can bet on the charter flight and in the team hotel the Yankees studied how the Twins swept a Sunday doubleheader to cost the Tigers a shot at first place in the AL Central, and how they reveled over Phase I of their spoiler mission in an attempt to implement some spit shine on their 64-89 record.

"Playing games like that in September, whether we're spoiling or vying for the playoffs, it's still fun," said Twins reliever Jared Burton. "We're still hungry, and we've got another week and a half left. We're going to keep battling."

The Twins’ uphill battle becomes more arduous on Monday night when Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte stands on a big-league mound for the second time since returning from a broken fibula on September 19. Pettitte is still building arm strength, leg strength and endurance, and will be limited to roughly 90 pitches, but is 9-0 with a 2.74 ERA lifetime against the Twins – 12-1, 3.51 since 1999. The veteran mowed down a weak Blue Jays lineup (five scoreless innings, 75 pitches) in his return and the Yankees are hoping he’ll do the same to the Twins. Despite the statistical and historical documentation, a veteran group knows better than to take anything for granted. After all, the Yankees once enjoyed a 10-game AL East lead, and now with 10 games left, it’s time to put up and not let up – against anybody.

"Nothing's changed,” said Derek Jeter. “We win our games, we'll be where we want to be. And that's all you can ask for. I've said it before, it doesn't make a difference what (the Orioles) do. We'd love for everyone behind us to lose every day, but we don't need that to happen. We control what happens. We played well this homestand. … It all boils down to us. We win our games and we really don't have to look at the scoreboard.”

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

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