More than a quarter of the 2011 season has been played, and yet the 21-24 Baltimore Orioles — the current last-place team of the AL East — are only 3.5 games behind the division-leading New York Yankees (25-21).
Sandwiched in between are, in descending order, the Tampa Bay Rays (26-22), who’re in second with a winning percentage of .542 to New York’s .543; the Boston Red Sox (25-22), a team currently a half-game behind first place despite starting the season 0-6; and the Toronto Blue Jays (24-23), to whom the Yanks lost Monday night by a score of 7-3.
The Jays’ potent lineup rocked starter Bartolo Colon (L, 2-3) for six runs on seven hits, which included Jose Bautista’s first-inning solo home run (19), in six innings. After Robinson Cano (1-for-3, 3 RBI), who drove in every run the Bombers scored on the night, tied the score at 1-1 with a sac fly in the fourth, Toronto broke the game open with a five-run rally in the sixth.
Corey Patterson led the inning off with a double, forcing Colon to intentionally walk Bautista. Yunel Escobar sac bunted his teammates over, and ex-Yankee Juan Rivera, like Bautista, got a free pass to load the bases.
Aaron Hill followed with an RBI single through the left side that snapped the tie, and Eric Thames worked a walk that forced in another run. The dagger was then delivered by J.P. Arencibia (2-for-4, 4 RBI), who hammered a bases-clearing, three-run double to right-center that increased Toronto’s lead to 6-1. Arencibia added a run-scoring single off 24-year-old reliever Hector Noesi (3.0 IP, 2H, 1R) to his tally in the eighth, and the Jays went on to win convincingly.
The winning pitcher was starter Carlos Villanueva (W, 2-0) (5.0 IP, 2H, 1R), whose team proved how difficult it will be for anyone atop the AL East division to establish a huge lead. In baseball parlance, such is referred to as running-and-hiding from trailing teams in the standings.
Such a luxury, however, is unlikely to be enjoyed by any team in this division. While Baltimore is the only member of the East most would agree isn’t good enough to contend for a division title this year, neither of the top-four teams has distinguished themselves.
But even in the case of Baltimore, with manager Buck Showalter at the helm and bright up-and-comers like center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters, there is a tangible, talented core around which they can build to be competitive. Toronto’s offense, headlined by AL home run leader Jose Bautista, Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia, as Yankees fans have witnessed in the last two seasons, will win them plenty of games.
And somewhat surprisingly, Tampa Bay, despite losing seven of their last 10, will have a say in the pennant race. In starters David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays have three five-win pitchers, and at closer they’re getting good production from former Yankee Kyle Farnsworth (2-0, 9 SV, 1.76 ERA). As a team, the Rays have an ERA of 3.54, fifth-best in the AL.
Then there’s Boston, against whom the Yankees are 1-5 this season. The Red Sox, even with the problems they’ve had at the bottom of their starting rotation — i.e., John Lackey (2-5, 8.01 ERA) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (3-3, 5.30 ERA) — still have Jon Lester (6-1, 3.68), Clay Buchholz (4-3, 3.30) and Josh Beckett (3-1, 1.73) leading the way. Sluggers Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz are as dangerous as ever, and they’re complemented well by AL RBI leader Adrian Gonzalez (41). When Carl Crawford and Dustin Pedroia finally come into form, no lead will be safe against that team.
Quite simply, the Yankees can’t look at anyone in their division as a walk in the park. Within it, the Bombers are 11-9, and winning more than 90 games in that hostile environment will be a feat unto itself.