Martin Fennelly Columns
What's not to like about a pennant race?
ST. PETERSBURG - Hey, I wonder if the Yankees are trying to win the AL East this time around. It sure doesn't look like it, even with a hat and a T-shirt on the line, and, oh, the abyss of a one-game wild card knockout game, or worse, staring them down. The Rays, they keep staring, too. They closed to within a game and a half of the AL East lead on Tuesday, taking another one from the reeling Yankees, this time 5-2, behind Alex Cobb's starting pitching and homers from B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings.Having fun yet? After 84 consecutive days in first place, New York's division lead is gone. The Yankees led Baltimore by 10 games on the morning of July 19. Now, with Baltimore's win at Toronto on Tuesday, they're even — and the Rays are breathing down both their necks. The Rays were back 10 1/2 half back on July 19, by the way. The Yankees, injured and old, have been living off that 20-7 June, but are now 19-25 since July 18. Hey, it's not the Red Sox last September, but it will do in a pinch. Think about it: In first place for 84 straight days — and they might finish third. Having fun yet? By the way, here is a astonishing fact: Since 1903, in all their years of playing baseball, 27 championships and all, the Yankees have never failed to make a postseason when holding a 10-game lead at any point in any season. Think about that. The biggest lead they've ever blown was six games, back in 1933, when the Washington Senators eventually ran them down. Those Yankees included guys named Gehrig and Ruth. And throw in the fact that Washington shut down Walter Johnson in September. That very last part isn't true. But the Yankees are looking shaky. Nothing has gone right in this series. For instance: Monday afternoon, Joe Maddon gets tossed, has to go to the clubhouse, where he gets to watch Chris Gimenez — yes, Chris Gimenez — win it late with an RBI single. Tuesday night, Yankees skipper Joe Girardi got tossed in the fourth — and then watched Upton hit his second homer of the game right after Jennings hit his first. And there was Cobb, who while we're waiting for Jeff Neimann's return (right?) went out and shut the Yankees down after giving up a two-run homer to Robinson Cano in the first inning. And there was Longoria, who went long, tall and majestic over the fence for two runs to put the Rays ahead to stay in the third. And, of course, there was that bullpen, lastly that man Fernando Rodney, again with the close, No. 42, to inch maybe a little further up the Cy Young voting ranks. And there was this Rays oddity: three of them struck out in an inning and none of them was named Carlos Pena. But first and foremost there was Upton, who has gone wrecking crew on the Yankees, with two homers in two days. Upton doubled past third base and the statue of Alex Rodriguez for a run in the first. He hit a long homer down to deep left center in the fifth. You know, it always seems to be about what this guy doesn't do, and that "Doesn't Do" will probably sweep him right out the door after this season, with Jennings sliding over to center field, I suppose. But can B.J. Upton get a little love for what he does when he does it? He leads this team in home runs, RBIs and stolen bases. He threw out a runner trying to score to end the game in Toronto the other day. OK, it's not B.J. from October 2008, and maybe it will never be like that, but don't be surprised if you miss little stretches like this when he's gone. "B.J. gets criticized a lot," Joe Maddon said. "But I'll tell you one thing I really love about B.J. _ he's not afraid. He's not afraid of the moment, man, and that's big ... He goes out and he plays and he's not afraid of the moment, and I think that's a real, real strong point of his. He likes this time of year." The Rays don't mind it either.