As the baseball vanished into the night sky, Tyler Austin’s right hand seemed to follow its trajectory, as he raised it in fist-pumping celebration.
The home run – a walk-off shot to beat Tampa Bay – pulled the Yankees to within two games of the Baltimore Orioles, who are clinging to the American League’s last wild-card spot.
AL Wild Card Standings (9/9/16)
Boston (78-61) – (division leader)
Toronto (77-72) – (first wild card)
Baltimore (76-63) – (second wild card)
Detroit – 1 (games back)
New York – 2
Houston – 2.5
The Orioles have to feel like they are running in quicksand. They have gone 6-4 in their last 10 games – only to see the Yankees go 7-3 and pick up a game in the standings (meanwhile, Boston went 6-4, maintaining their gap).
That’s kind of been the story for Baltimore, the past four seasons: good but not great. Since 2012, they’ve posted a .548 winning percentage, but have only one trip to the ALCS to show for it.
O’s Manager Buck Showalter and Vice-President/GM Dan Duquette have been nothing short of Siegfried and Roy. They’ve pulled winning seasons out of their hats with a series of cast-offs, international free agents, Indy-ballers, Rule-5’ers and even admitted cheaters.
In short, they’ve subsided themselves by rummaging through the bargain bin. And, they’ve had to be good because they’ve drafted poorly and have been stingy about going after big free-agents.
Of those factors, it is the former that puts such immense pressure on them to win now. As a result, they’ve traded from their barren stash of prospects each year for bit pieces (Gerardo Parra, Andrew Miller), hoping to find the little spark that puts them over the top.
Unfortunately, such piecemeal-style of roster building means they are lacking in the blue-chip department. Third baseman Manny Machado is a blue-chip player. At 24, he has already established himself as an elite player.
After him, the rest of the line-up is a bit longer in the tooth. Matt Weiters, Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis are 30. Adam Jones is 31. J.J. Hardy is 34. Those players make up the core of the team.
Compare that to the young nuclei forming in Boston and New York.
The before-mentioned Tyler Austin is 25. He is joined on the Yankees by outfielder Aaron Judge (24), catcher Gary Sanchez (23), shortstop Didi Gregorius (26) and the injured first baseman, Greg Bird (23) in what has been dubbed the “Baby Bomber” movement.
In Boston, outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is a graybeard at 26, next to outfielder Mookie Betts (23), shortstop Xander Bogaerts (23), outfielder Andrew Benintendi (22) and third baseman Yoan Moncada (21).
They are two, talented line-ups with the potential to only get better from here on out, whereas the current Orioles are probably playing to their peak potential.
This is it; there are no reinforcements on their way. They will have to win by beating the snot out of the ball and praying for continued bullpen success. The time to win is now. If they don’t, we might look back on this period as the golden age.