As interesting as the beginning of the baseball season was, with the Orioles ruling the American League East while the Red Sox and Yankees struggled to get above .500, few thought the lopsided results would last.
True to form, the Yankees have roared to the second-best record in baseball after posting one of the best months in the majors. They are 18-5 in June, part of a 24-7 run since they sat at 21-21 on May 21 and team management called a meeting to tell the players they would be all right.
New York has ridden a resurgent rotation and everlasting home runs to a four-game lead in the division (Baltimore is in second place, but no team is more than 7 1/2 games out going into Wednesday).
But one month doesn't win a pennant, and with the news Wednesday that CC Sabathia has landed on the 15-day disabled list and Andy Pettitte has fractured his foot, the American League East may once again be wide open.
Sabathia will be sidelined for just two starts, and it appears the durable lefty isn't that hurt. Both Yankees manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman said they fought through objections from Sabathia that he could continue pitching, opting to sit him as a precaution. Sabathia is, after all, the man known to take line drives off his chest, work on three days' rest and tally more pitches per game or innings per season than most of his colleagues.
Sabathia reportedly felt a "twinge" in the fourth inning of Sunday's game against the Mets, when he outdueled R.A. Dickey most of the way until the Mets tied up the game on late-inning fielding miscues. The Yankees eventually won, but New York also appears to have another, smaller victory from that game — whatever Sabathia did to his groin in that inning didn't keep him from throwing another 60 or so pitches.
So, if Sabathia is out for two games, it appears it will be just that — two games. But even two games without its ace is scary territory for New York. It gets scarier still now that Pettitte is out for six weeks with a broken left ankle.
The Yankees rotation is functioning well now, spots one through five, but it wasn't long ago that it looked like the club's starting pitching could keep it from the postseason.
New York started the year with Sabathia, National League transplant Hiroki Kuroda, rising star Ivan Nova, former 18-game winner Phil Hughes and veteran Freddy Garcia. The team had Michael Pineda, who wowed the league last year with the Mariners, waiting in the wings. And then Pettitte expressed an interest in returning to the game.
But Pineda went down with a labrum tear that has him out until at least next year, and Garcia revealed his age in a few horrific starts. Hughes, meanwhile, looked more like the wreck he had become as the Yankees constantly flip-flopped him and Joba Chamberlain between starting and relief roles, and some wondered whether Hughes would even be able to hang on in the majors, much less win 18 games again. With the usual slow start by Sabathia in the spring and Kuroda having trouble adjusting to the hard-hitting American League, the Yankees appeared to be a just-above-.500 club at best.
But Pettitte arrived to give the team a jolt, and it actually worked. The Yankees have a winning record since the return of Pettitte, who has logged at least six innings in each of his starts this year. Better yet, though, the Yankees had calm in the clubhouse. Teammates immediately started talking about how good it was to have the veteran presence back, and the lefty's advice trickled down to the rest of the rotation, which has been looking pretty strong since.
But, just as much as Pettitte's return showed how quickly things could turn around for the Yankees (who also had a nice uptick on offense), Sabathia's departure — and Pettitte leaving the rotation again — could be a harbinger for things to head in the opposite direction. Without their ace and veteran, the Yankees are going to have to turn to youngster David Phelps, who has made two spot starts this year, or Garcia, who the Yankees are happier leaving in the bullpen without an appearance for games at a time.
They could also bring up young talent for an appearance or two, but the bottom line is this: The well-oiled machine just had its biggest cog removed. What fell into place through persistence or serendipity could just as easily head the other way, and the cracks New York had in its rotation before could fester and derail its recent hot streak.
The Orioles, Rays, Red Sox and Blue Jays have just 12 days remaining before the All-Star break, with the stretch coinciding almost exactly with Sabathia sitting out. The Sox know they have to beef up their record right now, and they've responded accordingly. They'll have to devour cupcakes like Seattle and Oakland if they want to have any chance when New York, Chicago, Toronto, Texas and Detroit fill their schedule after the break.
The rest of the American League East faces a similar predicament — these teams won't have many gimmes before they have to start playing amongst themselves again.
The Yankees are 45-28 going into Wednesday's game, still within reach of Baltimore (41-32), Tampa Bay (40-34), Boston (39-35) and Toronto (38-36). But if New York goes on another tear like the one it's posted in June, the rest of the American League East can forget catching the pinstripes and focus on the two wild cards instead.
Baseball teams are streaky, and anything can derail a team that looks brilliant, including injuries. The American League East can hope that Sabathia's disabled list stint and Pettitte's absence drags the Yankees down for a bit. But they also need to do their part. They can't wait for the crown to come to them.
The Yankees are a team that demands that the division be won.