The last time the Yankees and Mets played a Subway Series with anywhere near the urgency of this weekend was more than two decades ago, with a world championship on the line.
And now? It’s all about varying degrees of desperation.
The reeling Yankees are clinging to a playoff spot by their fingernails, dropping six straight and 10 of 12 after Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Blue Jays. Aaron Boone & Co. also never led during the four-game sweep, which hadn’t happened to them at home since 1908, according to STATS.
As for the Mets, they slipped to 1-12 in their last 13 one-run games with Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Marlins. They finished 8-5 during the supposedly soft stretch against Miami and the Nationals, including 4-4 on the just-completed road trip. Not only do the Mets now have to win at an unprecedented clip for any playoff shot at all, but they need breakdowns from division-leading Atlanta and the second-place Phillies.
This weekend marks only the second time the Subway Series has been played as late as September. It's the first one to take place on 9/11, with Citi Field the host site for Saturday’s 20th anniversary, an emotionally charged event of a magnitude that will be off the charts.
The Mets and Yankees are going to have starring roles in that, just as they did when baseball helped with the healing process in 2001, from wearing the caps of the city’s first responders to simply giving people a chance to cheer amid the grieving. Against that backdrop, two rivals struggling to stay in contention will have to navigate the turbulence created by the intensity of those feelings.
"I think it’s going to be a pure rush of adrenaline for both teams," Luis Rojas said. "A lot of the players — if not all of them — will get more of a drive from this. But we’ve still got to control what we can control and bring our best game. We can’t let anything distract us, we can’t let anything intimidate us. We’ve got to keep things the same."
Remarkably, the Mets stayed afloat after a season-wrecking 2-11 stretch against the Dodgers and Giants despite the franchise’s efforts to sabotage itself during that span. First was the "thumbs-down" gestures designed to boo their own fans, followed three days later by acting GM Zack Scott getting arrested for DWI, asleep at a stoplight.
Through it all, the Mets had been one of MLB’s best offensive teams since Aug. 28, ranked second in batting average (.281) and runs scored (67) and placing third in OPS (.848) before Thursday’s loss. Combine that with a team ERA of 3.41 — ranked fifth overall — and that enabled them to trim their NL East deficit from eight games to five. Still, the schedule ahead gets far more difficult after this weekend, as their remaining opponents have a combined .523 winning percentage.
The Yankees have been losing almost as many players as games over the past week, with Jameson Taillon landing on the IL Thursday with a small tendon tear in his left ankle — only two days after Gerrit Cole was forced to leave his start because of hamstring tightness (the ace’s status seems to be improving). Before that, the Yankees’ best reliever, Jonathan Loaisiga, also was placed on the IL with a strained rotator cuff.
While the health of their pitching staff has rapidly deteriorated, the Yankees compounded the problem by slipping into their worst offensive funk of the season. Since their 13-game winning streak on Aug. 28, the Yankees’ .206 batting average and .589 OPS were both dead-last in the majors. Their 36 runs scored rank 29th, with only the Marlins (34) having fewer.
Factor in the bullpen’s 5.36 ERA (ranked 22nd) over that span and even the Yankees’ most reliable strengths are now betraying them. Catching the Rays atop the division is out of the question — the Yankees tumbled from four games behind on Aug. 28 to 10 games after Thursday’s loss.
It’s safe to say the Yankees have saved their worst baseball for the most important part of the season, a path that now winds through Flushing, where an equally desperate team awaits.
"We have the guys in that room right now capable of getting this done," Boone said Thursday afternoon. "And that’s our expectation. We know we need to turn it around and start playing better, but I absolutely feel like we’re positioned to do that."
This Subway Series could play a significant role in determining where these teams are headed, either to the playoffs or oblivion.