By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
The Yankees know full well that anything can happen in a wild card round, even at home.
But if the Twins do beat them on Tuesday night, it won’t happen because the Yanks eased into it. If momentum has bearing at all on one-shot elimination games, the Bombers are in a good place.
In fact, they couldn’t have set themselves up better if manager Joe Girardi had planned it out before the season.
Just take the last two days of September, for instance. Masahiro Tanaka ended a season-long search for his biting slider and slippery splitter on his way to striking out a career-high 15 Blue Jays while keeping the Yanks in the division chase with Boston. And then CC Sabathia followed with a strong effort in a 2-1 victory on short rest and short notice.
Neither of those pitchers will figure into Tuesday’s game, of course. That show belongs to Luis Severino. But the back-to-back performances couldn’t help but boost morale heading into the playoffs, even if Boston did manage to end all questions about the AL East crown a few hours after Aroldis Chapman retired the final Blue Jay on Saturday.
That finished off a September that played out as well as the Yankees could have imagined. Their 20-8 record was second best in the majors to the Indians, who ran away with the Central Division, thanks to a 22-game winning streak. But unlike Minnesota, which never had a chance to catch Cleveland, or top NL wild card Arizona, which finished up the track from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Yanks made a race of their division.
No cruising there. There was no admission of defeat until the penultimate game when the Red Sox tossed aside the week’s troubles and beat Houston to save their two-game lead.
The gap had been five games as of Sept. 24, but with the Yanks going 5-1 over the month’s final week, they turned it into a race. It was competitive right to the end. Competition creates momentum, and momentum can springboard a team to the next level.
Then there’s the hitting. Aaron Judge finished an awesome, 15-homer month with four in its final week. Greg Bird, his overall average still down at .192, started hitting the way he’s supposed to by month’s end, and wound it up with four homers and an eight-game hitting streak.
Gary Sanchez hit his 33rd dinger last Monday, making the Judge-Sanchez combo baseball’s all-time greatest under-25 home run duo.
Records are always a nice way to go into the postseason. Of course, Sanchez will have to pay extra attention to his often shaky defense while catching Severino on Tuesday. Yet, the Yanks should feel comfortable about having the 23-year-old and his 14-6 mark on the mound. He comes off a strong September that saw him go 3-0 and finish off his ERA at 2.98.
The only glitch to worry about was his next-to-last start, a three-inning, three-run appearance against the Twins. He followed that up, though, with nine strikeouts in six innings of one-run ball on Sept. 27 against the Rays.
If September was any indication, it is all coming together in the Bronx.
None of that lessens the unpredictability of a wild card game, however. The Twins, certainly overmatched in their division and clearly underdogs to the Yanks, have merits of their own. This is a team that lost a major league-high 103 games a year ago. Even a lukewarm, 14-14 final month did nothing to diminish the feeling of accomplishment they’ll take into Tuesday night.
Anything can happen. Anything is possible. But if their respective final months were any indication, the deck is stacked heavily toward the Yankees.
The Indians will present a far different challenge. And that’s only providing nothing untoward happens in the Bronx on Tuesday.
But heading into the win-or-bust scenario, the Yanks couldn’t have planned a better entrance.
Please flow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino