Earlier this month, the New York Yankees entered a pivotal caliber teams.
The Yankees were able to battle through that tough stretch with a 4-4 record against the Red Sox, Angels and Rays. Tampa Bay and Los Angeles are the Yankees' two closest competitors in the Wild Card race, while Boston has been at or near the top of the AL East since rebounding from a brutal start. The dog days of summer have a way of catching up to some clubs, but New York was able to come through the other end in pretty good shape. The Yankees still lead the Wild Card race by nine games, and they entered Tuesday tied for the division lead.
"I talked about the importance of the last two weeks, where we were, who we were playing," manager Joe Girardi said. "We were playing the Red Sox, moved into first place for a day, then we fell out. We were playing two teams, if it were to end today, that were closest to us in the Wild Card. We thought it was an important two weeks, and I thought we played well.
"As a club, we've had a lot of people step up and do some really good things."
Now the schedule lightens up considerably, and the Pinstripers must take advantage.
Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez is nearing a return from the disabled list. The All- Star third baseman, who has been rehabbing with Class-A Tampa, said he plans play two games with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre on Tuesday and Wednesday, then possibly rejoin the Yankees as early as Thursday.
"The timetable is still the same," Girardi said on Sunday. "He'll return sometime in Minnesota. I can't tell you Thursday (with certainty), but I expect to see him sometime in Minnesota."
In other injury news, Freddy Garcia was scratched from Sunday's scheduled start after cutting a finger on his pitching hand while cooking at home. Girardi said he did not think a DL stint was necessary and that Garcia (10-7, 3.16) may just miss one start as he takes some time to heal up.
Sunday's rainout allowed Girardi to start A.J. Burnett against Kansas City on Monday and bump everyone else back a day. It also afforded him some more time to figure out who, between Burnett and Phil Hughes, will be moved to the bullpen. Burnett had not won in seven straight starts dating back to June 29 until a victory on Monday night.
YOUK BACK IN BUSINESS FOR BOSTON
For one day, at least, Kevin Youkilis' back was feeling much better. The third baseman returned to the cleanup spot on Sunday after missing the previous two games with a bothersome back. He blasted a two-run home run in the eighth inning off Mariners' pitcher Jeff Gray.
It has been a bumpy ride this season for Youkilis, who has battled various bumps and bruises throughout the year. After hitting better than .300 in each of the last three seasons, his batting average sits at .267 in 108 games, although he has still produced 17 homers and 78 RBI.
"It felt a little bit better," Youkilis told the Boston Globe. "Sometimes it takes three days and today was the third day. I wanted to get in there and play. Sometimes, at this time of the year, if you're not 100 percent you have to go out there and play."
According to the Globe, Youkilis was walking around gingerly after the game, although he said he was hopeful the tightness would go away after Monday's off day. His eighth-inning bomb was not enough to prevent the Red Sox from losing a series for the first time since dropping two of three at Philadelphia June 28-30.
Meanwhile, starting pitcher Clay Buchholz, out since June 17 because of a stress fracture in his lower back, said he is still weeks away from throwing off a mound. The team had been holding out hope he could return as a reliever at some point before the end of the season, but with each passing day, that is becoming less and less likely.
RAIN WASHES AWAY RAYS' MOMENTUM
Just when the Tampa Bay Rays were making a bit of ground in the ultra- competitive AL East, Mother Nature threw a wrench in the spokes. The Rays won five in a row last week, and on Sunday they were turning to ace James Shields to try and take two of three from the Yankees in New York.
Instead, the team will have two days off entering Tuesday's doubleheader with the division-leading Red Sox. Shields, who said he was chomping at the bit to square off against the Yankees, will pitch the opener on six days' rest. While Shields has fared well against New York of late -- and against everyone else, for that matter -- he has struggled in eight career starts against Boston with a 1-7 record and a 7.71 ERA.
"It's a little disappointing," Shields said. "I was ready to go. I feel really good right now, and I wanted to face (the Yankees). I've pitched pretty well against them the last couple of starts. I wanted to do it again. Obviously, it was for the series win, but these things happen."
Tampa Bay will get another day off Thursday before opening a weekend series against Seattle at home. Shields will take right-hander Wade Davis' turn in the rotation on Tuesday, with Davis bumped back to Friday's tilt against the Mariners. Jeff Niemann (5-0, 1.65 in his past seven starts) will take the hill for Tuesday's nightcap, and lefty David Price will face the Red Sox on Wednesday.
"We don't want to skip either (Shields or Price), and Niemann's been kind of a hot hand lately, so it just makes sense to go that way," manager Joe Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times.
JAYS' FIRST-ROUNDER SLIPS AWAY
The Toronto Blue Jays failed to reach an agreement with first-round draft pick Tyler Beede before Monday night's deadline. Beede, a big right-hander from the Auburn area, was the only first-round pick of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft not to finalize a contract, and in fact is the only first-round selection in Toronto's 34-year history not to sign.
Beede, the 21st overall selection, will instead attend Vanderbilt University and is not eligible to re-enter the draft until 2014. As compensation, Toronto will receive the 22nd pick in next year's draft.
"They were still far off," Beede told the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram and Gazette. "They ended up getting to $2.5 million, but that still wasn't what we valued the Vanderbilt education at. It was obviously the hardest decision I've ever had to make, but I'm tremendously excited."
According to the Toronto Sun, slot money for the 21st overall selection was $1.332 million. Despite the outcome with Beede, Toronto was still able to sign all of its other picks, which included six other selections in the first 78 slots. Among those were hard-throwing right-hander Kevin Comer (No. 57 overall) and highly-regarded left-hander Daniel Norris (74) late Monday night.
"Obviously, you go into these things hoping to sign the players, but at the same time, you understand that there's no guarantees," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said on a conference call after the deadline passed. "I think generally speaking, we're very pleased with the result. We had a lot of picks, we took a lot of (what) Draft experts deemed tough signs, and we were able to come to terms with pretty much all of them."
MATUSZ READY TO DELIVER FOR O'S
To say the 2011 season hasn't gone as planned for Baltimore Orioles left- hander Kevin Matusz would be quite the understatement.
The 24-year-old entered the year expected to be one of the headliners in Baltimore's starting rotation. Instead, his season has been derailed by a strained left intercostal muscle that caused him to miss the first two months of the season. He returned on June 1, only to compile an 8.77 ERA in six games and earn a demotion to Triple-A Norfolk. On Tuesday night, Matusz will make his first big league start since June 30 when Baltimore takes on the Oakland Athletics.
"It's been a tough year, going through a lot of different scenarios," Matusz said. "But I definitely feel prepared and feel good about my health physically, and confident going into the start."
In eight starts for Norfolk since his demotion, the southpaw went 2-3 with a 3.62 ERA, including a shutout in his last outing. Most importantly, he has been able to regain his confidence.
"My last three starts have been excellent," he said. "I've been able to get in a nice, consistent groove and feel confidence about all my pitches and have a good idea of what I'm doing out there. I'm really looking forward going into my start (Tuesday), especially coming off a bunch of good outings down there, and being able to keep my groove going."