No one ever really thought the Yankees were going away.
There were times when it looked dire -- the short-lived tenures of "starting" infielders Alberto Gonzalez and Luis Cruz, for instance, in the dark days just before the return of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez -- but the Yankees haven't been truly out of a playoff race in September since 1992 (and have been out of the playoffs themselves only once since 1995).
For most of the year, the Yankees have been patching the gaping holes in their line-up with whatever waiver wire or utility level Band-Aids they could get their hands on; in addition to Cruz and Gonzalez, Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, Brent Lillibridge, Chris Nelson and Reid Brignac all appeared in more than 10 games this season for New York, with former Cleveland Indian Mark Reynolds currently filling that role with 16 appearances for the Bronx Bombers so far -- one of which was his first major league start at second base. The majority of the catching duties this season have been handled by young, ineffective rookie Austin Romine and older, even more ineffective veteran Chris Stewart, comprising perhaps the least impressive catching duo in the league. Travis Ishikawa somehow snuck onto the roster one day and got a start in before someone corrected their mistake.
But the Yankees stayed above .500 somehow (thanks to Hiroki Kuroda, Robinson Cano, Ivan Nova, a great back end of the bullpen and a not-inconsequential amount of luck), and are running out a lineup every night that looks something like this:
Brett Gardner, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Robinson Cano, 2B
Alfonso Soriano, LF
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Curtis Granderson, DH
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Ichiro Suzuki, RF
Chris Stewart, C
The aforementioned Reynolds, infielder Eduardo Nunez, catcher Romine and bizarre offseason acquisition and offensive black hole Vernon Wells all have nabbed the occasional start or two, but the team is as healed up as it's going to be -- Mark Teixeira is gone for the remainder of the season due to a persistent arm injury and Francisco Cervelli is serving out his 50-game ban handed down from the Biogenesis scandal. The Yankees have gotten all the reinforcements they're going to get, and the results have been, well, about what you'd expect: New York entered Thursday night only 2 1/2 games out of the wild-card race and 8 games out of the division.
Thursday night's crushing loss to the Red Sox was the first of 14 straight Yankee contests against American League East opponents. Half of those games will be against the Sox, while four will be against the Baltimore Orioles, from whom the Yankees just took two out of three and leapfrogged in the wild-card standings. The last three will be against the Toronto Blue Jays, who remain one of the season's bigger disappointments; the Yankees will also face the Tampa Bay Rays later in the month, sandwiched between the bottom-feeding San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros.
In other words, the stars are aligning. Not only have the Yankees finally solved their (frankly) shameful offensive woes from the right side of the plate by welcoming Jeter, Rodriguez and Soriano back to the team (Soriano's leave of absence spanning a decade of above-average but never-quite-great baseball), but the return of lefty Granderson means that should they really want to, the team could sacrifice Ichiro's glove in right field in order to roll an outfield with Soriano and Gardner in the corners and Granderson back in center; they would lose some defense, but they would also lose Ichiro's very disappointing .658 OPS from a corner outfield spot. The Yankees will already be doing something like this anyway on a sporadic basis, since the veterans coming back from injury, like Jeter and Rodriguez, will need time off to try and keep them fresh.
And while the lineup is full of old men, they're old men who have seen a lot of the current Orioles, Red Sox and Rays over the years and are more than capable of handling teams like the Jays, Astros and Giants. Every game the Yankees play for the rest of the year either gives them a chance to directly improve their position in the standings with regards to one of the three main contenders they're concerned with -- the ones that are first, second and fourth in the AL East -- or gives them an opportunity to beat up on a team that's in last in its division, or very close to it, and has nothing to play for at the moment. They're not precisely alone in that luck; the other AL East contenders are playing very similar schedules, substituting in teams like the Twins or the Mariners instead of the Astros and Giants, but whereas the Yankees got to kick off the month against the lowly White Sox, the Red Sox and Orioles had to face the Tigers and Indians, respectively -- two actual contenders. The Sox handled Detroit just fine, but Cleveland was able to help out the Yankees enough to let them overtake Baltimore.
Of course there's a difference between making the postseason and doing anything there worth mentioning; if New York does make it in as one of the wild cards, the Yankees would be in perhaps the most precarious position of any team currently vying for such a berth in either league. Hiroki Kuroda would almost certainly have to start the one-game wild-card "round" for New York. That isn't a problem in and of itself, given New York's two remaining off-days; shifting the rotation so Kuroda's on normal rest for a game on Sept. 30 should be simple enough. However, in that scenario the first three starters the Yankees would throw during the American League Divisional Series (where they would be the road team) would be Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia, likely in that order. Given Sabathia's season to date, that's not the most inspiring playoff rotation to take into a best-of-five series, but it's either that or don't use the team's best pitcher in the sudden-death game. Of course, the order of a team's playoff rotation is one of those good things to worry about; if you're worrying about it, it's because you're already as good as in.
So for the time being, that can wait. If the Yankees are going to make it to the postseason for the 18th time in the last two decades, they've got a lot of business to take care of in September. But for everyone else in the division, from the Red Sox to the Rays and especially the Orioles, that old familiar, inevitable feeling is creeping back into the game: The Yankees are on the move again, and no one's playoff dreams are safe.