By Jason Keidel
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The Yankees just won't go away.
While they haven't assumed their ancestral perch as American League or World Series champions in a while, they have taken on a new role as pesky contenders for the AL East crown, the baseball mosquito that keeps buzzing around Boston's ear.
No matter how hard the Red Sox swat, they can't seem to rid themselves of the Bronx Bombers, who are just three games behind Boston with 19 to play.
As incongruous as it felt to see the Yankees play the Rays at the home of the hated Mets on Monday night, it smelled like home cooking. The suddenly ageless CC Sabathia got the Yankees to the fifth inning, and their robust bullpen handled the rest. Joe Girardi pulled Sabathia before he could get the decision -- too early for a man of his gifts and guile, so said Al Leiter -- but the manager is already in full playoff motif, summoning David Robertson, who entered in the fifth inning of a game for the first time since April 15, 2011.
He was typically professional and understated, but the move had to chafe Sabathia (11-5, 3.85 ERA), who has been renowned for grinding out wins for over a decade. He'd only thrown 88 pitches. The weather was perfect, not hot enough to make the hulking pitcher burn out, not too cold to make him cool off. Girardi was sure to have a long chat after Sabathia was pulled, as he should, as the veteran left-hander will be a crucial cog in the Yanks' playoff drive.
Entering Tuesday, the Yankees' last 19 games are almost entirely against playoff contenders, but 16 of them are in New York, which is a decent trade-off. If you're going to win the wild card or AL East, and must cut through the meat of the league to get there, you might as well play them in your backyard.
And the Yankees are getting warmer as the weather gets cooler. If they beat Tampa Bay one more time in this three-game set, they will have won four straight series.
And let's be candid. It would take a pretty decent choke job for the Yanks to at least blow their hold on the wild card spot. The Red Sox are -- and should be -- the chalk to win the division, but the Yankees would still be well-served to focus on their hated rivals. Simple logic. The closer they get to first place in the AL East, the wider their playoff parachute.
Not only is it nice to see the Yankees pick up the playoff slack left behind by the Mets, who were supposed to be the "it" team in 2017, it's nice that the one player who remembers their last World Series team is still pitching, and pitching well.
Forget his age, wage, or weight. Sabathia will be essential to any playoff march. The big-game lefty has defied physics, odds, and his recent history. And it has to represent a healthy sense of vindication, or at least redemption, for Sabathia, who turned 37 in July. It wasn't that long ago that he was excoriated for "abandoning" the club just before they entered the playoffs, checking into rehab for a drinking problem.
Sabathia made no noise, no excuses, or complaints. And all those Twitter gangsters who judged Sabathia have either not lived to adulthood, or ever encountered the kind of real-life trauma that touches us all, in some form. We only make spiritual or sympathetic room for those who suffer exactly as we have, which is its own kind of cultural sickness.
Maybe the online tough guys had their moment, but Sabathia had the last laugh, pitching well and well past his prime. For all the strife, pomp, and circumstance that has defined the Yankees over the last eight years, since their last World Series win faded into the archives, there have only been a few bedrock Yankees who not only produced on the diamond but wear the pinstripes with pride and professionalism. They are the ones who get what it is to be a big-leaguer, and who have that innate sense that being a Yankee is different from any other baseball team, or any other employer, in the world.
The Bronx is not just a baseball destination, it's an intersection of sports, culture, and history. No one gets that, or represents that, better than Sabathia. And you don't have to be a Yankees fan to hope he ends his career in the Bronx, on the mound, with a win.
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