DETROIT -- Olympic rhythmic gymnastics was on the television in the visitors' clubhouse at Comerica Park on Thursday morning, and it had an entrancing effect on those members of the New York Yankees who took notice. After all, the sight of female gymnasts literally jumping through hoops and twirling batons is not one we oft associate with the Summer Games. "They have hula hoops in the Olympics?" a quizzical Derek Jeter said.
Yes, and it's evidently intense. As with regular gymnastics, every move is magnified and the slightest stumble can be profoundly punitive. So in that regard, rhythmic gymnastics has shades of October baseball. And October baseball is a topic worth broaching with regard to these Yankees. The Yankees are going to the playoffs. Can we all just agree on that right now? We could have agreed on that in March, for, in the Wild Card era, they have advanced every year but one -- 2008 -- and they would have advanced even then had the second Wild Card been in place. More to the point, the Yanks are on pace for 95 victories. If you put any stock in Baseball Prospectus' latest playoff odds report, they're given a 98.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason. One way or another, they'll be there. But will they be there as division champs or Wild Card winners? And have they put themselves in a better position to advance within October? At this point, losing the division race could only be classified as unacceptable, and not just because the Wild Card winners now have an uphill climb. The Yanks had a 10-game lead in the AL East as late as July 18 and have never squandered a division lead of six games or more, so second-place would be quite a collapse. Right now, it's not inconceivable. Though the Yankees just took two straight from the Tigers, they've dropped 12 of their past 20. As a result, their lead over the second-place Orioles, as of this writing, had been trimmed down to 4 1/2 games, with the third-place Rays just 5 1/2 back. The O's one-run and extra-inning magic continues, against all reasonable odds, and the Rays just got Evan Longoria back. Bobby Valentine insists, rightly or wrongly, that the Red Sox are a playoff club. So the East is still undecided, and, to some, the Yanks have cause for concern. "You get towards the end of the season," catcher Russell Martin said, "and teams start picking it up a little bit. You've got to pick it up, as well. You do that individually. It's an individual sport played as a team, so everything you do [has an impact]. A lot of it is just a mindset, heading into a game knowing it's a battle and being ready for it." How ready are the Yankees? Well, they have their issues, though the severity is debatable. Ivan Nova has been a wreck in the second half, posting an 8.36 ERA, Phil Hughes turned in a clunker at Comerica the other night, and Andy Pettitte had a slight setback in his recovery from a fractured left ankle. The offense has been inconsistent in the clutch, and Alex Rodriguez is out until mid-September (though Eric Chavez has stepped up in his absence). Oh, and Mariano Rivera is definitively not coming back this year. So, no, the Yankees are not what you'd call a juggernaut. But neither, of course, are the other teams in the East. Let's put it this way: The 2011 Yankees had 68 wins through 110 games and were in a first-place tie with the Red Sox. The '12 installment had four fewer wins at that same juncture, yet led the East by 4 1/2 games. The division, then, has been less demanding, and the percentages are in favor of the Yanks holding on to the top spot. But what about that issue of advancement? What about the hot-and-cold nature of this club and the possibility that it will go cold at the wrong point in the calendar? The stat that has concerned and confounded Yankees fans all season revolves around runners in scoring position. The Yanks entered Thursday with just a .251 average with RISP, ninth in the league. FanGraphs gave them a negative rating (minus-1.18) in their "Clutch" stat, which measures team performance in high-leverage situations. It is impossible to know how much to read into those numbers. They're more reflective than predictive and, anyway, the Yankees have the second-highest batting average (.320) and OPS (.882) with RISP of any team in baseball in the second half. If anything has held them back in run production, it's the lack of speed more than the lack of "clutchness." That was part of the attraction of adding Ichiro Suzuki, though, at this stage in Ichiro's career, his speed is hardly game-changing. You can see the Yanks' reliance on the long ball potentially holding them back in a short postseason series. While that is a legit concern, the Yanks do seem more secure in their rotation setup than they did a season ago, when the rookie Nova was their de facto No. 2. Yes, Ryan Dempster would have given them even more depth had they pulled the trigger at the Deadline, but Hiroki Kuroda, who has a 2.51 ERA over his last 14 starts following Thursday's no-decision, has been an impactful acquisition, and Pettitte, who's expected back in early September, looked a lot like his old self before suffering the fractured ankle. Nova's troubles are an in-season issue, sure, but for now, he's not counted as part of the October rotation, anyway. "I definitely think this staff is as good as any I've been on here," ace CC Sabathia said. Sabathia is a question mark in terms of whether his gargantuan workload (1,422 2/3 and counting, over the last six seasons) will cause late-season fatigue, which might have been the culprit in his second-half slide last season. Perhaps his short DL stint around the All-Star break will actually prove to be a blessing in disguise, perhaps not. But much figurative weight will be placed on CC's broad shoulders. "I generally feel pretty good," Sabathia said. "I just take the ball. That's always been me. I don't think about how many innings or anything like that. I just make sure I'm doing my stuff between starts -- a lot of stretching -- so that I can be there every fifth day." It's no stretch to assume the Yankees are October-bound. And while it's easy to get caught up in the negative of their current concerns, we've also seen how quickly the wins can pile up when this club finds its footing. Really, in October, as in the Olympics, it's going to come down to timing. And much like a certain set of gymnasts, the Yankees hope to have their rhythm when it matters most.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.