NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees won a game from the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, and that is good, if only for their confidence and self-esteem over the final 20 games of this season.
Because while the AL East title is not out of the question, it might be out of reach, if only because there are only three head-to-head meetings left with Toronto, but 3 1/2 games separating the two teams in the standings.
All things being equal -- both the Yankees and Blue Jays play the Tampa Bay Rays, the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles down the stretch -- the Yankees have the tougher remaining schedule because they have three games against the Mets, who are running away with the NL East, in addition to those three at the Rogers Centre beginning Sept. 21.
So while there is no reason the Yankees should give up on winning the division, because anything can happen, even a Blue Jays collapse, it's time for Yankees manager Joe Girardi to start planning for the more likely result -- a one game play-in on Oct. 6, against either the Texas Rangers, the Minnesota Twins or possibly the Los Angeles Angels.
In that case, the Yankees are going to need a starting pitcher, and a good one, to give themselves the best chance to advance deep into October. Right now, the only choice is Masahiro Tanaka.
That spot has been falling to Tanaka by default over the past couple of weeks, as injuries, inconsistency and ineffectiveness have taken their toll on CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, and most recently, Nathan Eovaldi. And as good as Luis Severino has been, apart from his disastrous start Friday against Toronto, using a rookie in a true win-or-go-home game is probably not the best choice.
That leaves Tanaka, who over his past two starts has shown he's the guy you want starting that game. And if you look at his past two starts against the fearsome lineup of the Blue Jays, it becomes even clearer.
That is why Girardi has to start counting backward from Oct. 6 to determine how best to use Tanaka the rest of the way. While still trying to win the division, Girardi would be remiss not to plan on who will pitch that game in the event the Yankees aren't able to overcome the hole they have played themselves into.
"No, absolutely not," Girardi had said when I asked him before Sunday's game if he had begun mapping out his pitching with the Oct. 6 game in mind.
"There's still too much baseball to be played," he said. "For me, we need to keep our foot on the gas and do everything we can to win the division because like I said, you do not want to be in a one-game playoff, you don't, if you can avoid it."
There was no point in repating the question after the game, because the Yankees' 5-0 victory that salvaged one game of the four played with the Blue Jays this weekend only strengthened his belief that the division might still be won.
But Tanaka's excellent performance -- seven innings, no runs and just four hits against probably the most unforgiving lineup in baseball -- only strengthened my belief that if the Yankees' season comes down to one game, Tanaka has to be the one to pitch it.
Facing a lineup minus Troy Tulowitzki, who was injured in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader, and Edwin Encarnacion, who was rested despite having had seven hits in 14 lifetime at-bats against Tanaka, the Yankees right-hander was in command virtually throughout the game. He allowed first-inning double to Jose Bautista but escaped damage by striking out Chris Colabello, his first of seven Ks. He gave up a second-inning double to Kevin Pillar, and escaped damage with a devastating pickoff move to erase the Jays' speedy center fielder from the basepaths, one pitch before striking out Ryan Goins to end the inning. He gave up a single in the third to Josh Thole -- and then retired the next 12 Blue Jays, striking out five of them.
Coming on the heels of an eight-inning, one-run, 10-strikeout outing against the Orioles five days earlier, and a complete-game win over the Blue Jays in Toronto on Aug. 15, it settled the season-long question of who, exactly, was the ace of the Yankees' pitching staff. That question seemed to have a different answer every five days, but now, there no longer is a debate. Right now, Tanaka is the man.
That means Girardi has some figuring to do. With 20 games left, Tanaka probably has either three or four regular season starts left, and all roads lead to Oct. 6. The manager's job now is to space them out so that on the day of the one truly must-win game of their season, Tanaka is fully rested and ready to pitch it.
It also probably means that Tanaka cannot face the Blue Jays when the Yankees travel to Toronto for what might still be a crucial three-game series on Sept. 21-23. But the question he must weigh is this: Is it wiser to go all-in on winning the division and risk not having your best arm ready to pitch the play-in game if your season comes down to it, or roll the dice with your other starters knowing that if you don't make it, your best will be ready to go in the game that truly matters?
If Girardi opts for the latter, he could pitch Tanaka three more times -- once on four days' rest against the Mets at Citi Field on Sept. 18, and twice on five days' rest, against the White Sox on Sept. 24 and the Red Sox on Sept. 30, both at Yankee Stadium -- and have Tanaka ready to go, on five days' rest again, for the wild-card game on Oct. 6.
Or, he could stay on rotation and pitch Tanaka against the Mets on the 18th, the Blue Jays on the 23rd, the Red Sox on the 28th and the Orioles in Baltimore on Oct. 3 -- meaning he would not be ready to go again until Game 1 of the ALDS on Oct. 8. By that point, it might be too late. The Yankees' season might be over.
One of the reasons the Yankees pursued Tanaka and signed him to that seven-year, $155 million contract was because of his reputation as a big-game pitcher in Japan. He didn't get to pitch in any big games last year, but the ones he has pitched in this year, including Sunday, have shown that he has taken to the high-leverage games here as well.
“I think everything we heard, he enjoys that," Girardi said. "He enjoyed it in Japan and he looked forward to coming in here and pitching in games like today.”
Although his natural reserve will not allow him to admit it publicly, Tanaka would probably thrive in the do-or-die situation of a one-game playoff, and may even secretly be hoping he will get the chance to pitch in it.
Yankees fans should be hoping for the same thing. Winning the division would be nice, but may no longer be possible.
Winning the one-game playoff is not only possible, but with Tanaka on the mound, perhaps even likely.
That is the scenario Girardi should be planning for, and the time to start is now.