NEW YORK -- Mathematically, just one team has been eliminated from contention in the American League East.
That's the Baltimore Orioles.
But with the way the Boston Red Sox widened their lead over the AL East's No. 2 team with a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees a week ago, it's easy to think the Bronx Bombers have no chance at taking the division crown from the Sox.
Entering play Monday, after a week in which the Yankees went 6-1 and gained no ground, New York's deficit sits at 9½ games.
Wild-card game, here the Yankees come.
Don't try telling them that, though. Since there still is time and a mathematical chance for them to roar back and snatch the division -- something they famously did exactly 40 years ago -- the Yankees aren't done believing.
But should they be? At this point, is it worth it to continue chasing hard after the Red Sox for the division lead? Or would it be more worthwhile for the Yankees to fully focus their energy on locking down a wild-card spot?
By taking the latter approach, the Yankees could take a slower, safer route in getting injured sluggers like Aaron Judge back in the fold, and also could rest closer Aroldis Chapman, who is dealing with knee tendinitis. Chapman will be pitching through that for the rest of the season, but in recent outings, he has struggled with his command and his velocity has been down.
Perhaps some extra rest also would benefit starters Luis Severino and CC Sabathia. The Yankees want to keep an eye on Severino's workload as we get close to October, and Sabathia is still pitching through his own knee issue that has required treatment through the season. While lower pitch counts and innings limits for Severino and Sabathia in the coming weeks likely would hinder an all-out push for the division title, perhaps they would pay dividends in the playoffs.
Of course, settling for the wild card would subject the Yankees to a one-game play-in that could mean an end to their postseason a couple of hours after it begins.
Pros of going after the Red Sox
A friendly schedule
The schedule, as it has been throughout the second half of the season, continues to be the Yankees' friend. Between now and the end of the regular season, 26 of New York's remaining 45 games are against teams that currently have losing records. Of those games against teams with winning records, three are against Tampa Bay, which is hovering just above .500, and six are against the Red Sox.
The Yankees' schedule is so favorable that, entering Sunday, it ranked as the fifth-easiest in baseball. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have a more challenging upcoming slate. With their future opponents sporting a .499 winning percentage entering play Sunday, the Red Sox have the 12th-easiest remaining schedule. The Yankees' remaining opponents entered Sunday with a .476 winning percentage.
New York has been getting some schedule luck in recent days, as series wins over the lowly Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers have proved. Since losing the series at Boston, the Yankees have gone 6-1 versus a pair of teams more than 21 games out in their divisions.
"It's a long season. You're going to have some ups and downs, and this team, we know that we have a game tomorrow, no matter what," Sabathia said. "You have to go out and keep playing hard, no matter what happens the night before, and turn the page. We're pretty good at that."
It is true Boston's success both against the good teams and the not-so-good ones this season might ultimately render the Yankees' easier schedule moot. On pace to have the greatest regular season in franchise history, the Red Sox have been beating any and all comers.
But because the Yankees have six more games against the Red Sox, there are still opportunities for them to close the large division gap in the coming weeks. Unlike last weekend at Fenway Park, though, the Yankees will have to take advantage of every one of those opportunities if they intend to truly contend for the division.
Key Bombers coming back
Soon, it seems, the Yankees will be getting two of their best power hitters back in the fold. How soon exactly? That's still uncertain. But as the days go by and the recoveries of Judge and Gary Sanchez continue to progress, it seems likely two of the Yankees' biggest boppers will be back in uniform in time for the September postseason push.
All six of the Yankees' remaining games against Boston are in September, as are six more on the road at Oakland and Seattle, two teams chasing New York in the wild-card race. The Yankees' season will most certainly come down to the final month.
"We're always hunting for the division. August just started. We've got August and September. A lot of crazy things have happened. For us, our goal has always been the division. It doesn't matter how many games we're back. We're going to keep fighting for that."Aaron Judge
Sanchez might be back within the coming week or so. The catcher is reporting back to the big league club Monday after spending nearly three weeks at the Yankees' facility in Tampa rehabbing a groin injury. Manager Aaron Boone told reporters Sunday that Sanchez would do some running on Yankee Stadium's field ahead of Monday's game against the New York Mets and also take indoor batting practice and "ramp up" his catching activities.
Sanchez is easing his way back after re-injuring his groin last month against the Rays in Tampa, which is where he originally suffered the strain a month earlier while running out a ground ball.
Judge could be a couple of days from finally swinging a bat and beginning his full return to baseball activities after suffering a chip fracture in his right wrist when he was hit by a pitch July 26. As he nears the three-week point since the injury -- Judge's original diagnosis estimated a three-week recovery time -- the slugger has started seeing some improvements to his range of motion. He also threw at a very short distance last week in Boston and has kept up his conditioning. Once the wrist is fully healed, he will be able to swing and, by that point, could be close to winding down his recovery.
With both players shelved in recent weeks, the Yankees have lost some valuable pop. Although Sanchez has struggled much of the season, scuffling with a .188 batting average, he still has 14 home runs and 42 RBIs in 66 games. Judge has hit .285 with 26 homers, 20 doubles and 61 RBIs. He has been one of the Yankees' most consistent and dangerous threats this season.
Giancarlo is heating up
Last Friday, while speaking to MLB.com at an event in Manhattan, Judge spelled out the Yankees' desire to continue pushing for the AL East crown.
"We're always hunting for the division," the right fielder said. "August just started. We've got August and September. A lot of crazy things have happened. For us, our goal has always been the division. It doesn't matter how many games we're back. We're going to keep fighting for that."
Judge's homer-hitting teammate, Giancarlo Stanton, has been swinging in recent games as if he wants to single-handedly reinsert the Yankees into the AL East race. He has exploded at the plate of late, homering in five of the past six games.
In the 16 games since Judge has been hurt, Stanton has been particularly effective, hitting .281 (18-for-64) with 15 runs scored, seven home runs and 15 RBIs.
His success has been a critical boost for the Yankees' offense, which is in the middle of a stretch of 14 straight home games with five or more runs scored. The last time they had a similar stretch was 80 years ago.
The Yankees hope this is the start of a tear like the one Stanton went on last August, when he hit 18 homers in the month for the Marlins.
One problem, though, is Stanton has been dealing with hamstring tightness that has limited him to some degree over the past week or so. Stanton has served as the designated hitter rather than playing the outfield, as the Yankees have been trying to give his legs a bit of a break.
Pros of focusing on the wild card
The Red Sox are rolling
Even if the Yankees' schedule is considered easier than Boston's, the fact remains that the Red Sox have been practically unbeatable.
Boston is 17-5 since the All-Star break, including the recent sweep of the Yankees.
Much of what has made the Red Sox (85-35) so successful has been the bats of Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. Betts leads the majors in batting average at .350, while Martinez is in an earnest push for the Triple Crown. Martinez leads the big leagues in home runs (37) and RBIs (104) and trails only Betts in batting average (.333).
Boston has weathered its injury issues, still experiencing success despite the likes of Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez, among others, spending time on the disabled list this season.
So if the Red Sox are going to handle adversity and keep winning games the way they have since the All-Star break, maybe the Yankees would be better served focusing on staving off the A's and Mariners, teams New York leads by five games in the wild-card race. While the Yankees are 12-10 since the break, Oakland and Seattle are 15-6 and 11-11, respectively.
The Mariners and A's open a three-game set in Oakland on Monday. It's the first of 10 remaining meetings between the teams. The good news for the Yankees is that these contests give the Mariners and A's several chances to beat each other up.
Chris Sale just came back
Hitting hasn't been Boston's only positive attribute this season. Its starting pitching has largely been dominant. In the series at Fenway Park last week, the Yankees got an up-close look at such dominance, collecting just four hits in 17 innings over back-to-back games against Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi.
As good as those two were in the recent rivalry series, neither is the ace of Boston's staff. And while a DL stint shut down that ace recently, it appears Sale has bounced back quite nicely. In a five-inning outing at Baltimore on Sunday, Sale struck out 12.
It marked Sale's seventh consecutive start with nine or more strikeouts and no more than one run allowed. In the past 100 years, no other pitcher has a streak of even five such games.
Moreover, Sale has allowed just five earned runs and has 109 strikeouts across his past 10 starts. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since 1912, when earned runs were first officially tracked in the majors, no other pitcher has had 100 or more strikeouts and allowed five or fewer runs over a 10-start span.
The bottom line is this: Sale already was dominant -- and now he's back, seemingly no worse for wear. With him pitching, the Red Sox are even more difficult to beat.
Fenway: House of 2018 horrors
At home this season, the Red Sox are a major-league-best 42-15. The Yankees have fared well at home themselves, sporting baseball's second-best home record, at 41-17.
Those numbers show how difficult it has been for anyone who has visited the Fens or the Bronx this season. That trend has carried over to the rivals as well. The home team has won 10 of the 13 games the Red Sox and Yankees have played.
That's a bad omen if the Yankees are still set on trying to win the AL East. Why? Because if somehow they're within striking distance of the division going into the final weekend of the regular season, the Yankees likely will have to do something they have yet to do this season: win multiple games at Fenway Park.
The Yankees not only are just 1-6 at Fenway, they have been on the short end of a couple of blowouts there. They lost 15-7 earlier this month and fell 14-1 back in April. The home of the Green Monster has been truly horrific for this team.