When the Yankees open up the second half of the season on Friday, they'll do it with a three-game series against the American League Central-leading Tigers -- a series that, judging by New York's first-half performance, will probably get them off to a rocky start.
Because the Yankees can't beat good teams. Or at least they haven't beaten good teams so far this season. After getting swept by the Angels to close the first half, the Yankees -- despite being 14 games over .500 at 51-37 -- are 2-12 against first-place teams, including an impossible-to-ignore 0-8 against the Red Sox.
This statistic has caused much consternation among Yankees fans (and officials), mostly because it's difficult to imagine a team actually winning the World Series without, you know, winning games against better-than-average opposition. The guys at WasWatching.com did a fantastic breakdown of how AL teams did against so-called "big boys" over the past three seasons (defined as games against teams with the fourth-best record in the league or better) and, generally, it showed what you'd imagine: The most successful teams are the ones that can beat the best; in each of the past three seasons, the AL representative in the World Series had a winning record against such lofty competition.
Good for them. I still think the Yankees are a good -- if not very good -- bet to go deep into the postseason and win their 27th World Series, despite their previously poor showings against the cream of the MLB crop. Here's why:
1. They're going to be a playoff team. Can't win if you don't play, and the Yankees didn't play in October last year. This year, it's already almost a given that the AL East will get two teams in and, much as I love the Rays -- and I do think they're great -- they're going to be the hard-luck losers this year. When their pitching can't hold up through the summer, the Yankees will get just enough from their own arms and continue to hit well enough to earn the Wild Card. So, assuming the Yankees are in the playoffs ...
2. Their weaknesses become strengths. Here are the two areas that concern me most about the Yankees: The back of their rotation and their setup-man situation. In the regular season, these are legitimate issues. In the playoffs, though, the series are scheduled so that teams can use a four-man (and in some cases, three-man) rotation. That means CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett or Andy Pettitte will get the ball nearly every night. In other words, no more Chien-Ming Wang or Chamberlain laboring through the third inning as the Yanks fall hopelessly behind.
Instead, Chamberlain can return to the bullpen and Wang ... well, Wang can do something assuming he's healthy, but it probably won't be anything too critical. Suddenly, the Yankees have a very live bridge to Mariano Rivera in Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves, as well as the option to use Brian Bruney in key spots if he's early-season-dominant Bruney instead of more-recent-disaster Bruney. Either way, the Yankees' pitching situation is tailor-made for the postseason.
3. They have the horses. The Yankees can hit. In their 51 wins, they've averaged about seven runs a game, and there's no doubt that kind of offense can cover up a lot of mistakes. It's one of the reasons I'm so sure they'll make the playoffs; during the regular season, hitting can compensate for a lot.
Does that mean Alex Rodriguez is suddenly going to morph into Reggie Jackson come October? Certainly not. And there's no doubt the questions about hitting in the clutch will come up as soon as the pressure games arrive, but among Derek Jeter (who is having an outstanding year), Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, scrappy Brett Gardner and a mostly excellent Robinson Cano, the Yankees have the best mix of talent (and attitudes) in their lineup in quite awhile. Pitching wins (see above) but the Yankees' bats -- along with the new Stadium -- make them an imposing force.
4. They're hot and cold. Normally this would be a reason not to like the Yankees chances, but I mention it because I think Joe Girardi -- for all his flaws -- is starting to figure out which buttons to push with his players. It's hard to find tangible evidence of that (other than what you hear from some of the players) but there is this: The Yankees had lost nine of 13 games (and were losing again) on June 24 against the Braves when Girardi was ejected for vociferously arguing an umpire's call.
Did his fiery outburst awaken his team? The Yanks went on to win that night, six games in a row after that and finished the first half with 13 wins in their last 18 games. History has shown that inconsistent teams that get hot at the right time can succeed in the postseason (hello, 2007 Colorado Rockies) and the Yankees have the right amount of talent to take full advantage of -- and draw out -- their surges. Given that, as well as Girardi's apparently improving feel for his team, I like their chances to peak at just the right time.