Are the Yankees in the midst of a historic collapse? Not too long ago, the Bronx Bombers appeared to be in cruise control headed toward another division title, but now, their lead in the American League East seems to be in grave danger.
With the Yankees idle last night, the Tampa Rays, whose pitching staff continues to perform at an extraordinary level, were able to shave another half game off the Bronx Bombers’ dwindling lead. Not since June 24, exactly two months to the day, has the Yankees’ advantage in the division been as low as the current 2.5 games. As a result, what was once a season high 10-game bulge on July 18 is now in jeopardy of being frittered away, putting the team on the brink of franchise infamy.
Source: baseball-reference.com aggregate data
The New York Yankees have never lost a double-digit division lead, and not for a lack of opportunity. Since 1901, the Bronx Bombers have enjoyed a lead of 10 games or greater on at least one day in 28 different seasons. Combined, the Yankees have spent 1,019 game days with a double-digit lead, or just over 6% of the time (8% since taking their first 10-plus game lead in 1923). So, the good news is, if there’s a franchise comfortable dealing with success, it is clearly the New York Yankees.
Although the Yankees have finished in first place at the end of every season in which they held a double-digit lead, there is one instance in which the team surrendered their largess only to bounce back and win the pennant. In 1928, the Yankees of Murderer’s Row fame were the defending champions, and with a lead of 13.5 games in early July, appeared poised to win the A.L. pennant once again. The Philadelphia Athletics had other ideas. Despite posting a modest record of 36-31 over the next two months, the Yankees were eventually caught and passed by Connie Mack’s Athletics, who won 50 of 67 over the same period. Instead of wilting under the pressure of having blown a large lead, the Yankees quickly regained first place by winning 13 of their next 19, including a double header sweep of the Athletics on the day after surrendering the lead.
Aside from the 1928 near-collapse, the Yankees have seen a double-digit lead whittled down to as few as 2.5 games on four other occasions, including this season. The first occurred in 1926, when Miller Huggins’ pinstripers had another brush with an epic collapse. This time around, the Yankees held a double-digit lead into early August, but then suffered a 19-24 stretch that allowed the Cleveland Indians to narrow a 10.5 game lead to only two. By that time, however, there were only four games remaining in the season, so with a double header sweep of the hapless St. Louis Browns, the Yankees were able to avoid disgrace.
More recently, Joe Torre’s dynasty almost never got off the ground when, in 1996, the Yankees saw a 12 game lead on July 28 dwindle all the way to 2.5 games, as the Baltimore Orioles took advantage of a 17-23 slide by the Bronx Bombers. Even though Mariano Rivera deservingly gets credit for helping to foster the team’s recent run of success, it was his cousin Ruben who may have saved the dynasty in its infancy. On September 10, with the Orioles’ 5-1 victory already on the scoreboard, the Yankees took a 9-8 lead into the bottom of the ninth at Tiger Stadium. However, thanks to a pair of walks by closer John Wetteland, the team was on the verge of losing further ground. Following the two walks, Tigers’ left fielder Bobby Higginson jumped on a first pitch fastball and sent a sinking line drive toward right. It looked like a game tying hit off the bat, but Ruben Rivera, who had come into the game as a defensive replacement for Paul O’Neill, made an outstretched dive and the ball landed in his glove. After avoiding disaster against the Tigers, the Yankees followed up with victories in seven of their next eight to salt away the division title.
Finally, in 2004, Torre’s Yankees, who had won four championships and seven division titles since their close call in 1996, again built a 10.5 game lead in mid-August, but like the Athletics in 1928, the Boston Red Sox refused to go away. Over the next three weeks, the Yankees suffered a minor setback at 10-13, but the Red Sox took full advantage by going 20-2 over the same stretch, closing the once wide gap to only two games on September 8. The Yankees wound up winning the division, but couldn’t avoid infamy in the postseason as the Red Sox overcame a 3-0 ALCS deficit, making the Bronx Bombers the only team in baseball history to lose a postseason series after winning the first three.
Note: Includes leads that were never recovered.
Source: baseball-reference.com aggregate data
Although the Yankees have avoided a major regular season collapse during their illustrious history, the team has ceded three modest division leads of at least 5.5 games. The largest blown lead by a Bronx Bombers’ team occurred in 1933, when the Yankees saw a six game advantage on June 6 quickly dissolve into a distant second place finish. Two years later, playing in their first season without Babe Ruth since 1919, the Yankees started off strong, but allowed a 5.5 game lead on June 20 to change hands with the Detroit Tigers. Lastly, in 1987, the Yankees seemed poised to break a postseason drought of six years, but the team’s five game lead on July 4 lasted about as long as the fireworks. Beset by injuries to the likes of Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph , Ron Guidry, and Don Mattingly, the Yankees played under .500 for the rest of the season and ended up a disappointing fourth place.
How will the 2012 Yankees be remembered? Alongside the dynastic teams of Ruth, Gehrig, Jeter, and Rivera, or in an infamous class by themselves? With over five weeks remaining, it’s too early for panic, but if the race remains close late into September, the burden of history could become a heavy load. The Yankees are hoping it doesn’t come to that. It never has in the franchise’s storied history, so why start now?