Troy Taormina | USA TODAY Sports

The nosediving Yankees were just gifted the earliest Christmas present and are already on the verge of wasting it.

Astros ace Justin Verlander is going to the injured list with a calf injury. The 39-year-old righty was dominant in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Verlander is 16-3 and owns an MLB-best 1.84 ERA.

This is understandably confusing at first glance. What does the Astros’ ace have to do with the Yankees? Looking at the American League beyond the AL East race, the picture becomes clearer.

The Yankees have played sub-.500 ball in August thanks to borderline nonexistent offense. As a result, they have fallen behind Houston in the race for the top seed in the American League and homefield advantage throughout the postseason. New York leads the Rays by seven games in the AL East, but trails the Astros by four games in the league outright.

Now, the Astros have to maintain or expand that lead without their best pitcher. It doesn’t matter that Houston’s bread and butter is developing young arms and they rank second in baseball with a 3.04 ERA. Verlander’s 4.8 fWAR ranks second in the American League and he’s just irreplaceable. Not having him available every fifth day makes things that much tougher for Houston.

This means that now would be a prime time for the slumping Yankees to remember how to hit and score runs again. The alleged “Bronx Bombers” have lost three in a row to the lowly Athletics and Angels. This news should energize the players and rally them to close out the last month strong.

Houston, meanwhile, can sit pretty for now. Their next 11 games are against the Rangers and Angels so losing Verlander for at least two weeks might not hurt too badly.

But at an absolute minimum, the Yankees need to at least try to rally behind this. They’re already in danger of blowing a substantial double-digit lead in the AL East. To have fallen out of the top seed as well during this freefall is just insult to injury. The fact that the playoffs might now not feature Verlander, who owns a 2.50 ERA in Houston, is astounding.

This is a prime opportunity for the Yankees to get back on track and play some exciting baseball again. Let’s see what the team does with it.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.