Opinion: Why the Yankees shouldn’t fret over a spot in the Wild Card game

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Photo: SNY

While the Yankees managed to incrementally boost morale with a four-game sweep against the crosstown rival Mets during this past work week, their attempt to gain some ground in the American League East standings was rather lamentable over the weekend.

Trailing the first place Red Sox by five games entering Fenway Park on Friday night, New York’s hope was to take two of three games from Boston, slightly trim the division gap, and embark on a trip to Detroit with firm confidence in their rank against the Tigers. Surprisingly, the Yankees weren’t far off from achieving that goal. But poor bullpen performances and a lack of timely hitting precluded progress, and forced them to leave Beantown with just one win.

“It’s not what you want,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters on Sunday afternoon. “Obviously, we need to continue to play well so when they come to our place, it means something. We probably had a chance to win four of the six and we won two of the six, so that’s frustrating. But I still think we’re playing pretty decent baseball and we need that to continue.”

To be blunt, the Yankees (66-57) appeared inferior, cast under Fenway Park’s mysterious spell, which made the Red Sox look like clear-cut favorites to reclaim their division crown in the coming weeks. If projections hold any weight at all, that notion is supported, as FiveThirtyEight currently gives Boston an 85-percent chance to win the AL East. And just below the Sox are those teetering Yanks, with a projected 14-percent chance to fulfill the same exact task.

Of course, no titles or awards are handed out in late August. With 39 games left in the regular season — and only four games against Boston from here on out — the Yankees do have ample time to right the ship and find their lost groove. But if they do come up short, and their archrival earns a guaranteed spot in the American League Division Series, would that dreaded Wild Card game cause the Yankees to pull hairs? Would they become engulfed with anxiety?

Photo: Jim McIsaac/Newsday

With all things considered, probably not.

For a storied franchise like the Yankees, which hasn’t won a postseason series in five years, a ticket to the dance should be all they desire. Even though that one-game playoff is considered to be either a blessing or a curse, it certainly can ignite a spark. Since the Wild Card game was implemented in 2012, half of the winners (10 total) have advanced to the League Championship Series. Baseball may be fickle, but momentum is the catalyst to all championship runs. Just ask the 2014 San Francisco Giants, who slaughtered the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wild Card night and went on to defeat the Kansas City Royals for their third world championship since 2010.

Now, if the Yankees were to read that stat, it would be quickly brushed off. They’re one of 10 total teams that have received the short end of the stick, and failed in that do-or-die scenario. In the 2015 Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium, Houston Astros’ ace Dallas Keuchel carved up the Yankees in six scoreless innings, which helped knock New York out of contention. Although the Wild Card death is swift, it still comes with a little pain, and the Yankees felt it.

So, why would New York want to experience that again? Well, for starters (no pun intended), they wouldn’t have to face a pitcher as talented as Keuchel. Right now, the Yankees are two and a half games up on the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels for home field in the Wild Card standings. Below the Twinkies and Halos are six other teams, trailing by one and a half games at the least and five games at the most. To avoid any confusion, those remaining teams are the Royals, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays.

Take a moment, and determine who the Yankees would be facing in some of those potential matchups. The Twins’ Ervin Santana? The Angels’ Ricky Nolasco? The Royals’ Jason Vargas? None of those pitchers are on Keuchel’s level, despite the fact that he’s experienced some injuries this season. Of the seven total teams fighting for two spots, it’s safe to predict the Yankees would host that game once again. And while baseball is unpredictable, they would have to like their chances — however the race unfolds. Plus, New York has right-hander Luis Severino, who’s emerged as an ace in the hole and a force to be reckoned with.

It’s also worth mentioning that any spot in the postseason should honestly be considered gravy to the franchise and its fanbase. While the Yankees’ front office will continue to communicate that their mission was to win and develop youngsters all at once, even this pseudo-rebuild wasn’t expected to come with a competitive, marketable campaign in 2017. New York’s brain trust was given a pleasant surprise, and even if the club misses out on the postseason or loses in October, the season should still be considered a success. That idea alone should allow the Yankees to play looser. After all, they are an underdog for the first time in a long time.

The AL East crown is still up for grabs, which means the Yankees control their own destiny until the regular season concludes. But if New York can’t squeak by the Red Sox, a Game-163 in the Bronx doesn’t appear too daunting when looking at the big picture.

If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.

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