So, they were back, sort of. You might already be tired of this “underdog Yankees” thing, but to their credit after blowing out the Toronto Blue Jays last week, the Bombers had improved their fortunes: They elevated themselves all the way up to tail-end Charlie of the American League’s postseason pack, and for all that, they were nevertheless still in fourth place in the American League East.
That’s sort of the problem for the Bombers in a nutshell, because, after running into a Tampa Bay Rays team with something to lose -- the division -- the Yankees aren’t so hot any more, taking two quick losses despite sending Hiroki Kuroda and CC Sabathia to the mound. And that provides a timely reminder that it isn’t narratives that win ballgames. It’s ballclubs and the organizations that field them.
Considering the Yankees have losing records against all three of the teams ahead of them in the East, their run as big-budget Cinderella has some major stumbling blocks to overcome down the stretch. Namely, the Boston Red Sox, Rays and Baltimore Orioles don't seem likely to curl up and go away. While the Yankees have made it to the postseason four straight seasons, they’re almost sure to fall short of October this time around -- Clay Davenport gave them a 20 percent chance before Satuday’s loss, while CoolStandings has them at less than half of that. Meanwhile, the Rays could make it a third time in the past four despite a payroll around a fourth the size of New York’s.
And for that, the Yankees have only themselves to blame: By setting the bar so high for so long for what it takes to win the AL East -- even at a time with two wild-card teams -- they’ve long since sewn their own stomping grounds with dragon’s teeth, long since grown into teams more than ready to push past them season after season. The same competitive dynamic that demanded that the Yankees spend vast sums to reliably contend in the AL East is the same engine that has bred three teams they’ll have trouble beating down the stretch, because among their 33 games remaining, they have seven more apiece against the Orioles and Red Sox and four against the Rays.
The challenge of contending in the AL East had long since forced upon the Rays a developmental discipline that makes them even more frightening than the Yankees' payroll, capable of winning with machine-like efficiency. Underdogs? As if. The Rays almost relish problems just for the chance to solve them, as documented so well in Jonah Keri’s book, “The Extra 2%,” as much of a must-read as “Moneyball.” Despite a payroll around a quarter the size of the Yankees’, the Rays haven’t won less than than 90 games since David Price’s rookie season, and that’s not about to change; the Yankees haven’t won less than 95 since they signed Sabathia, and that will.
Much like the A’s before them, the Rays enjoy the role of sabermetric darlings because of the way in which the analysis community worships at the altar of market efficiency. But do not for a minute think that makes them underdogs. Money doesn’t buy success, but it’s the one thing the Yankees have had to consistently rely upon. Every asset the Yankees were supposed to rely upon to win, the Rays deliver on in their own way.
Take their lineup cards. The Yankees spent big on known quantities and established stars, but how much good has that done them with Mark Teixeira shelved, or with Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson sporadically available? Their fixes have involved trying to breathe new life into yesterday’s men: Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells and Alfonso Soriano. The Rays aren’t to be pitied because they can “only” afford to churn through rental first basemen -- Casey Kotchman, Carlos Pena and James Loney the past three seasons, all varying definitions of disposable. With Evan Longoria and Wil Myers as pillars with the power to propel any lineup and with Ben Zobrist, Kelly Johnson and even utility man Sean Rodriguez operating as multipositional flywheels, every lineup card Joe Maddon comes up with is designed to beat you tonight, every night. You don’t need to respect the selections, just the results.
And the rotations? Saturday’s duel between yesterday’s big-ticket hired gun versus (perhaps) tomorrow’s hired gun to-be captures the dynamic in a nutshell. Both Sabathia and Price became regulars in their respective rotations in 2009. The Yankees waited a season saving up to buy their ideal ace at a price that only they could afford; the Rays conjured their own up more economically via the draft. In the broad strokes, neither method is intrinsically better than the other, not unless you want to spend your time celebrating how much a Steinbrenner spent or a Sternberg saved. The end result -- stud lefty on your staff -- had been much the same the past four seasons. Different methods, similar results and whatever it takes to win. But not this season; this season, youth has been served.
Money has long been the weapon the Yankees have on hand. They might have had to spend big money to employ the famous people, but that’s in part because they had to. After seeing so many of the products of their farm system come up short, can you blame them? Yankees fans might well be asking: Phil Hughes, David Phelps, Joba Chamberlain, what have you done for me lately? Spending on free agents is by its nature expensive and, as Sabathia’s rough season reflects, not necessarily a guarantee of anything beyond the first couple years in any deal. Even playing the golden oldies card with Mariano Rivera this one last time meant paying top dollar for the privilege. Meanwhile, the Rays found a way to fix Fernando Rodney and make him a closer good enough to win with, an entertaining example of when too much is enough when it comes to lauding save generators.
So perhaps we should cast the Yankees as the underdog after all, not because of their in-season narrative, but because this was a relatively static ballclub built with an expiration date. Whereas the Rays are the example par excellence for adapting and overcoming any challenge to put themselves into the postseason with whatever combination works, the increasing sclerotic Yankees are due to reap a destiny brought on by their big-budget commitments and constraints. Like all of us, they can rage against the dying of the light. Maybe that engenders some sympathy while they go up against lighter, tighter and younger operations; maybe that makes them underdogs. But this is the destiny they’re due.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.