TORONTO – The Yankees started their latest season-defining series Tuesday night at Rogers Centre against the Blue Jays, with both teams’ postseason prospects still very much up in the air.
The one certainty regarding the series?
The likelihood of plenty of close games.
Entering this three-game set, the Yankees had played 87 games determined by two runs or fewer, the second-most games in the big leagues this season, trailing just the Mets (88 entering Tuesday).
The Yankees’ 55-32 record in those games is the best in the majors this season, and it’s the club’s best record in such games since the 2009 club – the franchise's most recent World Series-winning team – went 48-25.
"We've played more close games than anyone in major league baseball," manager Aaron Boone said, "and the one thing I've felt all year long is, even when we've had the toughest of losses or exhilarating victories, I know we're comfortable when it's tight, when it's close, when it matters."
The fourth-year manager spoke late Sunday night in Boston after his club’s 6-3 victory over the Red Sox completed a three-game sweep that put the Yankees one game ahead of their archrival for the top American League wild-card spot and kept them two games ahead of Toronto. Though Sunday night didn’t fit into the games-decided-by-two-runs-or-fewer category, it did represent their 42nd come-from-behind victory, tying them with the Giants for third most in the sport (the Yankees did add to their close-game count – and come-from-behind-victory total – in Saturday’s 5-3 victory).
"[In] October, you're not going to have those games where it’s 11-3 or 10-2. It’s going to be a 5-4 ballgame, a 3-2 ballgame," Aaron Judge said in late August of the benefits of playing so many tight games. "I feel like 90% of the games we play are one-run games…There’s no panic [with us], even when stuff starts hitting the fan or things aren’t going our way in the eighth or ninth inning. Guys have no panic, and the next man steps up to make a play."
Success in those kind of games – the Yankees came into Tuesday 27-18 in one-run games – guarantees not a thing when it comes to the day-by-day randomness that are the playoffs.
The Yankees, for instance, went a pedestrian 18-19 in one-run games in 2019 but reached Game 6 of the ALCS before being eliminated (by a run) on Jose Altuve’s walk-off homer against Aroldis Chapman in Houston. In 2018, the Yankees went 23-17 in one-run games, beat Oakland in the wild-card game, then lost in four games to the Red Sox in the Division Series. In 2017, the record was 18-26, but the Yankees ripped Minnesota in the wild-card game, upset Cleveland in five games in the Division Series, then took a 3-2 lead in the ALCS before losing Games 6 and 7 in Houston to the Astros.
Last year, during the COVID-19- shortened 60-game season, the Yankees were 6-7 in one-run games, not nearly large enough of a sample size from which to draw any conclusions one way or the other. They lost Game 5 of the ALDS to the Rays, 2-1, after sweeping Cleveland in the best-of-three wild-card series.
Still, experiencing such success in those close games, even if no grand conclusions can be taken from it, has beat the alternative.
"I know whatever the result ends up [being], I know we're not going to scare at all, that we're not going to back down at all," Boone said. "I think everyone is keenly aware of what we're playing for, and to see them competing like this right now is a lot of fun."