Nothing tells you more about both the oddity of this 60-game whack-a-doo baseball season, and the way you can look at the Yankees if you choose to do so through cold, objective eyes, than this:
In March, before the world as we knew it went into witness protection, there were two odds-on favorites to win the World Series: the Dodgers in the National League, the Yankees in the American. If you were so inclined, you could get LA and the Yankees both at around +500. In July, when 162 had become 60, you could get both teams at +450, and the next-best choice was the Astros, at around +1000.
And now, after all we’ve seen from this season, after the Dodgers won 43 of their 60 games and ransacked the West Coast and the Yankees were as unpredictable as traffic on the Clearview Expressway? The Dodgers have the shortest odds at +350 ($100 will win you $450) and in the American the Yankees are STILL the betting favorite to make the World Series (though tied with the Rays) at +600 ($100 will get you $700).
Now that we’ve dragged ourselves through the memorial Jimmy-the-Greek gauntlet, what does that mean?
Well, the Yankees can act humbled and happy to just qualify for the playoffs. They can speak about the marvelous chance they have at their fingertips, even if it starts in Cleveland (they have been abysmal on the road), even if it will never see even one inning inside The Bronx (where they were as tough to beat as anyone).
They can all say that while they like their chances with Gerrit Cole on the mound, there’s a caveat: they speak with an almost whispered reverence about the Indians’ pitcher, 25-year-old Shane Bieber, and his 8-1 record and 1.63 ERA and 0.866 WHIP and 14.2 strikeout-per-nine innings ratio.
It’s enough to make you wonder if Aaron Boone took a tape measure out of his jacket pocket Monday to prove to his lads that it’s 60-feet, 6-inches from the rubber to home plate at Progressive Field, that it’s 90 feet between the bases then chuckled and said, “I think you’ll find that’s the exact same measurement as our little park back in The Bronx.”
Said Boone: “We have an amazing opportunity.”
But they also have an extraordinary amount of expectations for a team that finished up the season at 33-27, which translates to 89-63 across all 162. Since expansion began in 1961 only the 2014 Giants (.543), 2006 Cardinals (.516), 2000 Yankees (.540) and 1987 Twins (.525) had lower winning percentages than the .550 the Yankees enter postseason with and still won the World Series.
And it doesn’t matter.
They are still the Yankees. They are as close to healthy as they’ve been in two years, missing only James Paxton. They can still drop 10 runs on you out of nowhere, even if there are plenty of other times they seem to be offering at 98 mph heaters with yellow Wiffle Ball bats. Folks expect them to be the Yankees. And should. That’s always what the Yankees want, after all.
“We’re in control of our destiny,” Boone said Monday as his team was going through a final workout in preparation for Game 1 of this best-of-three wild-card miniseries with Cleveland. “Everyone starts even right now. We’ve been through a lot; everyone’s been through a lot. Now we have a chance to compete for a championship.
“Looking around the room, we have enough necessary equipment to go after that. I know our guys will relish that.”
If it feels remarkable that we simply got this far in this baseball season when so often it seemed poised on the brink of calamity, it should. That is a tribute to the protocols and the players who followed them. It is also a fitting reward to fans who may have had a lot to gripe about this season with new rules and new looks but kept checking in.
And if Yankees vs. Indians feels like a buzzkill way to start the postseason, Cole vs. Bieber very much is not. Three years ago, the Yankees overcame both an 0-2 deficit and the Indians’ deep collection of starters to advance to the 2017 ALCS. If they are to similarly sidestep the Tribe this time, it would be helpful if Cole out-pitched Bieber, the Cy Young odds-on who is 34-14 for his career but has yet to taste the playoffs.
“He’s been locked in from the beginning, we all have,” said Cole, whose own 7-3/2.84/0.959/11.6 pitching line was pretty damned good this year. “It’s a good pitching matchup. I’m excited. It should be a good one.”
And for the Yankees, it needs to be something else: a good October starting block in the final days of September.