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On Thursday night, Russell Martin let us in on a little secret: He’s not rooting for his team’s number one rival to make the playoffs.
“Anything to get the Red Sox out would be awesome for me,” he told reporters on Thursday night. Why? “Because I hate the Red Sox.”
Martin’s sentiment wasn’t surprising and the Yankees don’t seem too concerned, despite the fact that his comments have garnered press attention. Manager Joe Girardi said, “Boys will be boys” and GM Brian Cashman compared Martin to Thurman Munson in terms of his play, his toughness, and his attitude.
It’s Martin’s word choice that was jarring. Really, Russ, hate?Can you even imagine a seasoned Yankee like Derek Jeter, who is in fact friendly with David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis, ever using such strong language? Maybe the catcher was having a little fun with reporters, or he was just trying to fire up his teammates and fans. Perhaps his feelings are related to his past dealings with Boston; Martin was pursued by the Red Sox last offseason (he clearly doesn’t regret signing with New York, though).
Regardless of what may have been behind Martin’s statement, he certainly makes an interesting point: The Yankees could play a significant role in determining which team snags the AL wild card. The Bombers have six regular-season games left: three against the Sox this weekend and three against the Rays next week. Currently, Boston leads the wild-card hunt, with the Rays 2.5 games back and the L.A. Angels 3.5 games back.
Now that the Yankees have clinched their division, no one would fault them for resting their stars and giving their young call-ups a chance to play, not even Terry Francona. On Friday, WFAN’s Mike Francesa asked the Red Sox manager what he expected to see from the Yankees this weekend. Francona responded: “Now, they have the right to do what they want. You know, whether they want to play their team or not, that’s their luxury.”
So, will the Yankees take advantage of this luxury against Tampa, but play their best team against Boston, as Martin implied? Not necessarily. True, these games could affect Boston’s chances; however, despite what the catcher said, New York doesn’t have a vested interest in which team wins the wild card. Cashman, who was also on WFAN on Friday, said, “Whether it’s Boston if they get in…it’s gonna be a nightmare…all these teams in the American League have a chance to run the table..and we want to be that team to run it but we also know we have our work cut out for us.”
The Rays and the Red Sox are both capable and tough opponents. Tampa Bay, a gritty team with outstanding pitching, is surging to the finish line. Despite their play this past month, the Sox have owned the Yankees this season. New York is not naive enough to forget 2000, when they themselves slumped in September and went on to win the World Series.
Ethics aside, any effort by New York to influence the wild-card race would be futile for many reasons. For instance, the Yanks don’t have the ability to impact the Angels or the other games that Boston and Tampa Bay will play in the next week. Sorry, Russ, but the Yankees’ focus is elsewhere.
Playin’ for Bigger
For the Rays and the Red Sox, their series against the Yankees are potential vehicles to the playoffs. For the Yankees, these games serve a different purpose: to position the team for victory in the postseason. New York has four primary goals this week:
(1) Clinch the best record in the AL. Securing the best record in the AL would guarantee the Yankees home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. Girardi has emphasized the importance of home-field advantage several times; it goes without saying that playing in front of New York fans in the long-ball friendly cathedral is preferable in any high-stakes game. I expect the Yankees to play hard until they clinch best record; their magic number is currently two. Girardi did post his regular lineup for Friday’s game against Boston, which ended up being postponed due to rain.
(2) Give players a little rest. The Yankees announced this week that ace CC Sabathia will not pitch until Game 1 of the ALDS (he’ll likely also pitch Game 4, if necessary, on three days rest). Key players like Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher and Martin have missed games recently due to injury, and could benefit from a more relaxed schedule in the coming days. Girardi stated on Friday that he planned to sit one to two starters per game, “just to make sure that our team is ready to go next Friday.”
(3) Keep the momentum going. Girardi also said, “Our guys need to play…they need to be sharp.” As much as A-Rod might benefit from resting his thumb, he must work to get back into his groove after missing so many games. MVP candidates Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano are swinging hot bats; too much rest could be detrimental to their games. Girardi will have to balance resting guys with making sure they play enough to stay “sharp.”
(4) Determine the Yankees’ postseason roster. With Francisco Cervelli likely out for the year, which catchers will the Yankees carry besides Martin? Jorge Posada made a great case for himself with his AL-East clinching pinch hit on Wednesday. Jesus Montero has proven his offensive power, but is he a sufficient backup catcher? As for pitching, Sabathia and Ivan Nova have clearly secured their spots, but who else will start? Should the postseason roster include another lefty reliever in Raul Valdes? The Yankees will use the games this week to answer those roster questions, among others.
Therefore, while Martin’s aim might be to play spoiler this week, the Yankees clearly have different objectives. Does New York want to beat the Sox for the sake of possibly knocking them out of wild-card contention? No. Do they want to beat the Sox for a host of other reasons, such as clinching best record and building momentum? Yes.
On Friday’s show, Francesa asked Cashman about the Yankees potential role in determining the AL wild card. Cashman responded: “We’re playin’ for bigger.” And he’s right.