Heading into the weekend, there are still nine AL teams either holding dearly to a playoff berth or within five games of one. The Yanks and Royals, who meet again on Saturday, each have 23 games to go. Several excellent AL teams are going to miss the playoffs and another is going to be eliminated in the AL Wild Card Game. The four that survive will have really earned it. That's how close the AL races are right now.
The Tigers are the team on the outside by a half-game. Meanwhile, the Royals are enjoying their unexpected run. They haven't made the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series in seven games over the Cardinals, and they are in uncharted territory.
"This is a good young nucleus of players who play with a lot of excitement and energy," Kansas City manager Ned Yost said before the game. "I see a real determined focus on them this year. It's just going to be an exciting end to the baseball season for us and a lot of teams."
The Yankees are used to being in the playoff hunt. They've been to the postseason in every season except two since 1995, winning the World Series five times and seven AL pennants. Yet right now, they are in danger of missing the postseason in a second consecutive season for the first time since the three-tiered playoff format was adopted.
They're not used to pursuing. They're used to being pursued.
"Obviously, you'd love to be able to control your own destiny, but you can't," Girardi said. "The bottom line is that whether you control it or not, you still have to win games. So we have to play well and that's my concern."
And that's what makes a game like Friday night's that much more frustrating to the manager on the losing side. Every play is now accentuated. Starters Michael Pineda for the Yanks and James Shields for the Royals were both magnificent. Neither walked a batter. Pineda allowed three hits and an unearned run. Shields allowed three hits and hit a batter before he was lifted when Derek Jeter singled with one out in the ninth. The bullpens were flawless.
The slim margin of victory in the game came when Alcides Escobar slammed a grounder off the glove of third baseman Chase Headley and scampered to second, beating left fielder Brett Gardner's throw.
"It was a rocket," Girardi said about the play. "That kind of thing is going to happen."
Headley, the same player who hit a walk-off homer to beat the Red Sox here on Thursday night, was charged with an error. Nori Aoki knocked in Escobar with a single to center, and that was the difference between joy and heartache for the Yankees, victory and defeat for the Royals. It was Kansas City's only runner in scoring position all night.
The Yankees had just two. Gardner doubled with two outs in the fourth, the first hit off Shields, who promptly struck Carlos Beltran with a pitch. But Brian McCann popped out lazily to third to end the threat. Again in the ninth, the Yanks had a runner on second with one out and reliever Wade Davis now in the game. Gardner and Beltran both whiffed to end the issue, Beltran on a called third strike.
"I guess that was the first time I've faced that guy," Beltran said about the final at-bat. "I was basically looking for a good pitch to hit, but at the end of the day, he won the battle."
For Mets fans, it was a solid reminder of the final pitch from Adam Wainwright to Beltran in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Beltran struck out looking with the bases loaded, and the Cards won the game and the series.
"He threw me some good pitches on the corners, on the edges," Beltran said, speaking about Davis. "He stayed away after that with a good fastball."
The what-ifs pile up quickly when a season is on the brink. What if Pineda and Beltran had remained healthy this season? Pineda has pitched incredibly well after missing nearly four months of the season with a shoulder injury. He's allowed only six earned runs in five starts since returning on Aug. 13. Where would the Yankees be now if Pineda had been able to pitch the entire season? What about Masahiro Tanaka, out since July 8 with a partially torn ligament in his elbow? Prior to the injury, he was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA in 18 starts.
"[The challenge] has been different this year," Girardi said. "When you lose a position player, it might change your lineup, but you run one guy there. It really affects only one guy. When you lose people out of your rotation, a lot of times it has an effect on the bullpen as well, and it affects the whole pitching staff."
For the Yankees, that's the way a season crumbles. For the Royals, it's a different story.