The phrase "meaningful games in September," as first uttered by former Mets owner Fred Wilpon to describe a preseason wish in 2004, has become mostly a negative over the years.
As in, "Oh, all you want is to achieve is playing meaningful games in September? You don’t aspire to more?"
The Yankees would never be caught talking about meaningful games in September (unless they were asked a question using that phrase, as manager Aaron Boone was by YES Network’s Jack Curry before Tuesday night’s 7-1 victory over the Rangers).
For the Yankees, the regular season is supposed to be a warmup for October.
But this season has been different. The Yankees are fighting for an AL wild card. There’s no guarantee they are going to get one.
Meaningful games in September might be all they get this year. That would not bode well for a braintrust that thought it had assembled a title-chasing team and a fan base that expects postseason games as part of its birthright.
Boone said being in it — even if "it" is just the possibility of earning a spot in the win-or-go-home wild-card game — is still "exciting" for him and his players.
"You do want to be playing meaningful games this time of year, and we certainly are," Boone said. "I wish they were a little less meaningful at this time — that we had things sewn up — but that's not the case. The reality is we’ve got a couple more games on this homestand and then, obviously, an important road trip. "
On Wednesday, the Yankees will host Texas in the finale of a 20-game stretch with no days off. They are 8-11 in that stretch.
The Yankees are a half-game behind Toronto for the second wild card. The Blue Jays are the only playoff-caliber team the Yankees have played in the 20-game stretch, unless you count the Mets (who the standings say are not a playoff-caliber team).
As Boone mentioned, there is a big road trip coming up: three games this weekend at Fenway Park. Then, after another day off, three games in Toronto before the regular season ends with three in the Bronx against the Rays, who will have the AL East sewn up by then but no doubt would love to send the Yankees home before the postseason begins.
"We realize we have to play our best baseball," Boone said. "We realize we have to play better than we have over the last couple of weeks, but certainly the confidence exists there that we can do that."
That’s what’s baffling about the 2021 Yankees. They can win 13 in a row, as they did in August, and then follow that up by going 2-11.
They can mash impressive home runs and then get stymied by nobody pitchers on some of baseball’s worst teams.
So they can win enough games to claim a playoff spot. But will they?
That’s where the meaningful-games thing comes into play. No disrespect to the Rangers — actually, kinda disrespect to the Rangers, who are hardly a marquee foe — but every game left starting with Friday’s series opener in Boston with Gerrit Cole on the mound will be super-meaningful.
Every pitch, every at-bat against their talented divisional rivals will be must-see. Given that the Yankees have spent most of the season playing close games — 85 of them decided by two runs or fewer, second-most in baseball to the Mets — it’s likely there won’t be too many blowouts in that stretch.
The Yankees have gone an MLB-best 53-32 in those close games. It's what has kept them in the hunt.
"We're sitting here," Boone said, "the long-haul grind of the season, the roller-coaster ride certainly that it's been for us this year, and here we are at the very end, in control of our fate. There's some comfort in that."
One more game against Texas, one much-needed day off, and then the truly meaningful games begin for the Yankees, right up until the regular season ends on Oct. 3. In or out? It’s up to you, New York.