MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

5 keys for Yankees to hold on in AL East

5 keys for Yankees to hold on in AL East

CLEVELAND -- The Yankees have been in the top spot in the American League East every day since July 3, reaching the high-water mark that was a seven-game lead on July 27.

Of course, July 27 doubles as the night Toronto made the Troy Tulowitzki trade. You might have noticed that the Blue Jays -- and the complexion of the East -- have changed considerably in the time since. The Blue Jays' sweep of the Yankees last weekend proved that a real race is on, and now the pressure is on a Yanks team that has seen its lead shaved down to just a half-game (two in the loss column), with a weekend trip to Toronto looming.

Here are the five biggest keys for the Yankees in their bid to hold on to first place.

1. Luis Severino sticking
The kid was solid again Tuesday night against the Indians, settling in after some early traffic and allowing just two runs on seven hits with a walk and two strikeouts in six innings.

Severino has more than the usual amount of pressure placed upon him as he acclimates to the big leagues. You've got to go back more than 50 years to find a real comparable in terms of a rookie taking on this prominent a role this late in a season in which the Yanks are contending.

General manager Brian Cashman eschewed the short-term in-season upgrade via trade in order to preserve his top prospects, Severino included, in part because he believes "[Masahiro] Tanaka and [Michael] Pineda can match up with anybody as long as they're at full strength."

But neither of those guys is at full strength, really. Pineda is on the shelf until September, and Tanaka, of course, is pitching with a partially torn right elbow ligament. The Yankees had been pitching Tanaka on five days' rest this season, but the schedule now necessitates a more Americanized plan of four days' rest, which Tanaka responded well to in Sunday's outing against the Blue Jays (albeit on a limited pitch count). The Yanks lost, 2-0.

Anyway, the point is that the Yankees don't have a bankable front end of the rotation, and as encouraging as things appear with the recent work of Nathan Eovaldi and Ivan Nova and even CC Sabathia's last outing, there is an obvious need for Severino to step up.

"We plan on him delivering," Sabathia said.

So far, so good.

Severino holds Tribe to two runs

2. Hit homers
Yeah, this sounds like a page from the Montgomery Burns School of Managing ("You, Strawberry, hit a home run!"). But the truth is that the Yankees were built to either go deep or go silent. They've won just nine times all season in games in which they didn't hit a homer. They've scored 45.8 percent of their runs via the home run. Only the Astros and Dodgers have a higher such percentage.

So as simplistic as this "key" might sound, it's true. The Yanks need to hit home runs to win this race.

After the current road trip to Cleveland and Toronto wraps, New York will play 28 of its final 46 games at Yankee Stadium, where the short right-field porch suits a lineup loaded with lefties and switch-hitters. No team in baseball puts a higher percentage of balls in play to the pull side (45.4), and only the Astros (38.6) have a higher fly-ball percentage (36.8).

All but 10 of the Yankees' homers have come from guys 31 or older, and two guys 35 and older -- Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira -- account for more than one-third of the homer total. So the Yanks have to hope the season grind doesn't wear down the older bodies in their lineup. Which leads to the next point.

Teixeira's 30th homer

3. A-Rod's finishing touch
Rodriguez's contributions have already exceeded expectations.

"Everything we're getting from Alex has been obviously much-needed, special, and I'm thankful for it," Cashman said. "But I can't say I anticipated that, because who could have anticipated anything like that?"

As the season has evolved, A-Rod's impact has shifted from a pleasant surprise to more of an expected (and necessary) element for the club's success. But it's difficult to know what to expect from a 40-year-old in the homestretch.

Rodriguez has six homers and an OPS north of .900 in the second half, but he hasn't gone deep since July 27, and he's 6-for-32 with nine strikeouts in August.

In the past seven years, only two players 39 or older have hit double-digit homers in the second half -- Chipper Jones (10) in 2011 and Jim Thome (15) in '12. Not once in that span did a 39-or-older player log an OPS of .900 or better while playing in at least 45 games in the second half.

A more relaxed mindset and a move to designated hitter has clearly benefited A-Rod's ability to sustain his performance. But the grind he'll face in the final eight weeks will be another big test for him.

A-Rod homers on 40th birthday

4. The top of the order
It needs to be on top of its game. Jacoby Ellsbury spent seven weeks on the disabled list with a knee sprain. He's been back four weeks now, and he's 21-for-116 with six walks and only one (unsuccessful) stolen-base attempt since his return.

"He's so important to our offense," manager Joe Girardi said. "Really, really important."

The Yankees have gotten away from any kind of running game in the second half. No. 2 hitter Brett Gardner attempted his first steal of the second half on Tuesday and was thrown out. Of course, with both Gardner and Ellsbury, there hasn't been much on-base opportunity, anyway. Gardner is 14-for-73 with 12 walks since the break.

"Those guys at the top, we definitely need to get going again," Girardi said.

Ellsbury's go-ahead solo shot

5. The bullpen
What's that "BS" next to Andrew Miller's name in Tuesday's box score? We haven't seen that all year, and obviously the Yankees don't hope or expect to see it again.

Miller has seen slightly more traffic on the basepaths since his July 8 return from a forearm issue, but not enough to be outright concerned. It just stands to reason, though, that the Yanks can't afford either Miller or the oft-used Dellin Betances, who is on pace to reach 85 innings after tossing 90 in 2014, to go into any real ruts.

The Yankees have particular reason to root for Sept. 1 to arrive. It will allow them to stop making their near-daily roster moves in the bullpen. This club has played with what amounts to more than a 25-man roster because of their constant maneuvering of a bullpen that has already employed a whopping 23 arms -- maneuvering necessitated by the struggle to get consistent length from the starters. But until September gets here, expect that maneuvering to continue, because the Yanks just began a stretch of 16 games in 16 days.

"We've gotten a lot of help from the Triple-A level," Betances said. "Big power arms."

But the biggest and most powerful arms belong to Betances and Miller, and they're the Yankees' most important keys of all.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.