By Steve Silverman
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The resurgent Yankees are cruising along in first place in the American League East, and they can look forward to playing October baseball this year with confidence.
They have a six-game lead over the Orioles and Blue Jays as they take the field on Friday night in Chicago against the White Sox.
However, Joe Girardi knows that nothing can be taken for granted. The Yankees have been legitimate overachievers this season, and they have outperformed preseason expectations by a wide margin.
Even if they slip just a little bit, they may have enough of a cushion to hold off either of those teams and win the division title.
But it doesn’t always work that way. One bad loss, key injury or even one seed of doubt that gets planted could turn things into a disaster, and do so quickly. There is the possibility that something very nasty could happen this weekend on the South Side of Chicago.
The White Sox have turned their season around. Through the All-Star break and a bit beyond, Robin Ventura’s White Sox couldn’t hit, could barely field and struggled running the bases. While they had notable starting pitching – led by the redoubtable Chris Sale – they simply couldn’t score enough runs or play dependably enough in the field to get the job done when the game was on the line.
But in the past week, the White Sox have turned a season of frustration around. They may not be able to catch the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, but they are just 3 ½ games behind the Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins in the American League wild-card race. They are resurgent.
A week ago, the White Sox appeared to be sure sellers at the trade deadline, but seven straight wins over the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox – that streak ended Thursday night with a loss at Fenway – has given the White Sox a new attitude that had been missing throughout the season.
Based on the way they have played the majority of the season, the Chicago surge could turn out to be a mirage. By mid-August they could be scuffling at the plate and kicking the ball around the infield and outfield again. But with the Yankees in town, they are playing their best baseball.
Jose Abreu and Melky Cabrera are their hottest hitters, and neither one is likely to cool down any time soon. Abreu made a name for himself last year with his power and vicious line-drive stroke, and while he has had a few lulls this year, every pitch he’s gotten his bat on over the past nine games has been a line drive.
Abreu has a .295/.349/.492 slash line along with 17 home runs and 49 RBIs this season, and he has been on fire with 11 RBIs in the last seven games.
Cabrera has been fairly ordinary for the majority of the season, with a .282/.321/.392 slash line that includes six home runs and 48 RBIs. However, Cabrera has been shockingly hot recently. Before going hitless against the Red Sox Thursday night, Cabrera had put together a streak of seven straight games in which he had at least two hits. He had three hits in two of those games and four in one of them.
Hitting is contagious, and the sleepy White Sox hitters took note of Abreu and Cabrera and have followed suit. Alexei Ramirez was miserable at the plate throughout the majority of the season, and he has suddenly found his stroke after a long talk with Ventura. Adam Eaton has given the White Sox a bit of life at the top of the order after a dreadful start.
The point is the Yankees are going to have to be at their best. Their bats have certainly been on fire this week, and it will have to continue in Chicago. The Yankees are not going to see Sale this weekend, but the other White Sox starters have been quite respectable.
The Yankees have faced challenges all season and they have responded quite well. Girardi has juggled his pitching staff and has his team prepared. But this weekend is a potential black hole for the Yankees. It’s easy to look at the White Sox and figure that a sweep or two out of three wins is at hand.
It may not be quite that easy. The White Sox have suddenly become a team that has found confidence and can hit the ball. They will prove even more to themselves if they can keep it going against New York. The Yankees had best be prepared for a fight against a team that is playing for its season.