The Yankees have their work cut out for them after losing two of three to the St. Louis Cardinals. Fresh off a disappointing 5-1 loss Sunday, even more so considering Gerrit Cole started, New York now has four games at home against the rival Baltimore Orioles.
In case you missed it, the Orioles are far from the lowly, lovable losers of the post-Buck Showalter era. A red-hot May has the Birds sitting second in the AL East, 5.5 games behind the Rays, and four games ahead of the third-place Yankees.
It’s also worth mentioning that the regular season series is tied 3-3. Like we just said, the Orioles are no longer the AL East’s punching bag.
Granted, in fairness to the Yankees, Baltimore has gotten a bit lucky this year, largely from the Yankees underachieving without Aaron Judge. The Orioles also had a very soft schedule early on. They played the following teams over a three-week span from mid-April to early May: Oakland, the Chicago White Sox, Washington, Boston, Detroit (Twice!), and Kansas City.
As in, no playoff teams.
Baltimore also found good fortune when the team visited Yankee Stadium after blowing a 4-0 lead in the series opener. The second game saw both Nestor Cortes and the Yankees’ MLB-best bullpen crumble and blow a 5-1 lead. The rubber game saw Orioles righty Kyle Gibson overachieve to a 3-1 win.
As in, even without Aaron Judge, the Yankees are probably still a better overall team than the Orioles.
This is what makes the series so important. A sweep, though unlikely, could put the Yankees tied or even ahead of Baltimore in the standings. Remember, Baltimore’s pitching is fairly average and ranks 17th in baseball with a 4.25 staff ERA.
The Orioles rank 10th in runs scored, but context is key. The next three AL teams behind them have underperformed this year: The defending champion Houston Astros (11th), the Toronto Blue Jays (14th), and the Yankees (18th).
The only real advantage Baltimore might have over New York is bullpen. Orioles relievers rank seventh with a 3.66 ERA compared to the Yankees’ top-ranked 2.88 mark. However, per FanGraphs, they rank first in MLB with a 3.49 FIP and a 4.6 combined WAR.
Oh, and how about the official Aaron Hicks revenge tour? The switch-hitting outfielder signed with Baltimore after the Yankees cut him and he’s since hit .263 with four home runs and a .854 OPS.
This series still shouts, “Advantage, Yankees.”
They’ve still won three of their last four series. Judge won’t play but is slowly resuming baseball activities. Best of all, the lineup is slowly showing signs of life and hitters like Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu, and Giancarlo Stanton seem to be finding their groove.
None of this means the Yankees should expect to easily sweep the Orioles back to the Inner Harbor. They may not be a great team, but manager Brandon Hyde has them playing well enough and consistently that they’re certainly not a bad one either. The Yankees don’t need to win all four games, but at least two of them. Being familiar with Baltimore’s projected starting pitchers helps too.
The numbers don’t lie. If the Yankees want to turn the season around, it’ll have to be in this series and without the protection Aaron Judge provides everyone.
Otherwise, clinching a Wild Card might become even more of an uphill battle.