Yankees forcing AL East to face reality: No one’s going to catch them | Klapisch

NEW YORK – It was about this point in 1986 when Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog made a painful concession about the state of the NL East.

He was throwing in the towel to the team he hated most.

“No one’s going to catch the Mets,” Herzog said bluntly. “The race is over.”

The White Rat, as he was known, wasn’t trying to rally his Cardinals. And he certainly wasn’t sucking up to the Mets. He considered them arrogant and disrespectful, starting from the top. Herzog had no use for Davey Johnson and the outlaws in his clubhouse.

But facts were facts. Fifty games in, the Mets were already a runaway locomotive barreling towards a world championship.

I’m thinking about that moment in New York sports history because it’s starting to feel the same way in the Bronx. The Yankees outplayed the Rays, 2-0, Tuesday night, in an intense game that felt like a turning point in the division race.

Tampa Bay is a good team, one of only three American League clubs that can legitimately compete with the Yankees. Still, everything the Rays did on Tuesday, the Bombers did just a little better.

And just like the hopelessness that washed over the Cardinals mid-way through the summer of ’86, I wonder if the Rays and Blue Jays are finally realizing that a take-down of the Yankees has become a bridge too far.

The Bombers are, after all, nine games up on Toronto, a full 10 ahead of Tampa Bay. With the best record in the major leagues, leading in virtually every offensive and run-prevention category, the Yankees are on a pace similar to their ’98 ancestors. And they have the same relentless confidence that night after night, they’ll end up owning you – just like the ’86 Mets.

The only difference? The wild card, which wasn’t around in ’86, gives the also-rans hope for a second shot at the Yankees in October. So don’t expect managers Kevin Cash and Charlie Montoyo to waive a white flag, at least not publicly.

And there is one more – and perhaps one last – window to lasso the Yankees and bring them back to the pack. That opportunity is now.

The Yankees have begun a 13-game stretch exclusively against the Rays, Blue Jays and Astros. They represent the AL’s last line of defense against the Bombers running the table straight to the World Series. Should the Yankees take all four series – winning, say, 9-of-13 – then who else can stop them?

Naturally this discussion requires the usual disclaimers and caveats. So here we go: injuries can derail any club, including the Yankees. Aaron Judge could pull a hamstring covering those wide-open acres in centerfield. Giancarlo Stanton, who’s already missed time with a calf injury, might tweak it again at any moment.

Nestor Cortes could feel a twinge in his shoulder. And Clay Holmes, the world’s most lethal closer, could suddenly lose the bite on his power sinker. Any of these scenarios could slow the Yankees’ march. And so could the longer-range schedule.

The days of mopping the floor with the Orioles, Angels and Tigers are over. Nearly half of the Yankees’ final 100 games will be against Rays, Jays, Astros and suddenly-alive Red Sox. So we have to take the Yankees at their word when the say, “there’s going to be a lot of tough baseball” in the days and weeks ahead.

That’s how Gerrit Cole described it after a fairly crisp six innings on Tuesday. He wasn’t at his best, but the improvement over his last start against the Twins – you know, that one: five home runs, three HRs in the first seven pitches – was enough to brighten the Bombers’ mood.

Cole allowed only five hits, none that were barreled up, while striking out seven. Corey Kluber almost matched him, but like we said, everything the Rays did on Tuesday, the Yankees saw and raised them.

The Bombers played better defense, ran the bases smartly, and proved once again this is not the same Yankees team that couldn’t match the Rays in small ball over the last few years.

Put it this way: both the Yankees’ runs were unearned, the 39th and 40th Tampa Bay has allowed this season. Despite their organizational IQ, the Rays play terrible defense. They’re 19th out of 30 in the majors in errors. The Yankees, by contrast, are third in the majors and No. 2 in the AL.

That’s why it’s so hard to envision a Yankees’ collapse. It’s still early but it’s not premature to study the growing body of evidence. The verdict is obvious by now: the Bombers have become machines.

Consider the current five-game winning streak. Pretty good on its face. But dig a little deeper and the dominance becomes breathtaking. The Yankees have scored in double digits in two of those five victories. And in three others have held their opponents to a total of one run. No wonder the Yankees have an astounding, MLB-best plus-129 run differential.

But it’s not just the numbers that make the Yankees so efficient. It’s that Can Do ethos that seems to ooze out of their pores. They’re just as cocky as the ’86 Mets (minus the insane partying). And unlike Doc and Darryl and Keith and Dykstra, the Yankees are ascending without being hated around the league.

Actually, hold that thought. The Astros are coming to town for four games next week. That’s more than a rivalry, it’s a war right out of the 80s. The White Rat would’ve loved it.

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Bob Klapisch may be reached at bklapisch@njadvancemedia.com.

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