After dropping two of three in Toronto, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi didn't quite wave a white flag. But he went rooting around for it, just to make sure he knows where it is.
"It is not mathematically impossible, but it is difficult," Girardi said of his team's chances of reversing a 3 1/2-game deficit with 11 games left to play.
In order to manage it, the Yankees would probably need to go at least 9-2 during that stretch. They've done that once this year – in April, before injuries began whittling them down to a nub.
They have one lockdown starter remaining – Masahiro Tanaka – and he's hurt. New York's onus will now be on setting Tanaka up so that he's in top shape going into a win-or-go-home wild-card encounter.
That decision is a dog-whistle to the rest of the roster – "Here are the new marching orders." New York is giving up on an open-sea race with Toronto, and will move back to slower coastal waters, hoping to drift in to the postseason at full strength.
Some of us will remember the Jays' collapse of 1987 (knock wood and try to think well of Manny Lee, wherever he is), but you can't start planning like it's going to happen again. Toronto has 10 games remaining: Every one of them should now be seen as prep for the first round of the postseason.
"I haven't thought about it," manager John Gibbons said a few days ago, about any incipient playoff plans. "But I think about a lot of things."
Which means it's the only thing he's thinking about.
The first chore is stepping on New York's metaphoric neck until you hear a crack.
The longer the Yankees linger in this race, the more likely they are to think they can pull it off through sheer Yankeeness.
The Jays magic number to win the division is eight (Toronto wins plus New York losses). It would be best to have that out of the way within a week.
The second, and more important goal, is overtaking the Kansas City Royals for best record in the American League.
There is one team no one wants to meet in the playoffs right now – Toronto. A close second is the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers were the Jays at the deadline – a tweener team with some obvious upside floating in the .500 dead zone. A lot of people thought they'd trade ace Yovani Gallardo and give up on the year. Instead, they pushed it all into the middle and acquired Cole Hamels from the Phillies. In his last game with Philadelphia, Hamels pitched a no-hitter.
Nobody thought much of it at the time. Almost every "trade deadline winners and losers" piece omitted Texas because the Rangers were too far out of it to matter. On August 1, they were eight games behind the Astros in the AL West. As of Thursday morning, they lead the division by three games. In the interim, they've gone 32-13.
You do not want to play this team in the first round of the postseason. Or ever, really. Not with those two aces, not with that lineup, and especially not in that cavernous wasteland of a ballpark in Arlington. To paraphrase the most iconic movie of the last couple of years, Texas is not the bogeyman. It's the team you send to beat the bogeyman.
What Toronto wants is to meet the winner of a New York-Houston wild-card game. It's still possible that one of the L.A. Angels or Minnesota Twins sneaks in there instead. All four are beatable teams staggering toward the finish. Houston would be best – the Astros are young and brittle. The Jays are 13-6 against the Yankees this year. It's a pick 'em situation.
It's just best to avoid Arlington at all costs. If you've had the misfortune of visiting, you'll know this is a good rule for life as well as baseball.
There's been some cautious talk about resting key players. Josh Donaldson hasn't had a full game off since July. Jose Bautista hasn't had one since April. That would be a welcome luxury, but it's still a luxury. There are many tales told about guys who took their foot off the pedal right at the end, and then couldn't find it again in the tumult of the postseason.
Another key is hurrying Troy Tulowitzki's recovery along. Before the final game against the Yankees, the injured shortstop (cracked shoulder blade) was out on the field tossing the ball with what seemed relative comfort in the pregame. He's taken swings off a tee. There is no need for him to play again beyond a final tune-up on the regular season's closing day. That'd give him 10 more days to heal, putting him just beyond the cusp of the initial recovery timeline – three weeks. It didn't look doable at the time. It does now. Given how quickly his replacement, Cliff Pennington, has come back to Earth, you suspect it'll have to be.
The final calculation will be the most observed – the playoff rotation.
Until the division is secured, the Jays will need to put David Price in position to pitch a wild-card game. That's another very good reason to finish the Yankees off now.
The best-of-five opening-round series is compact – five games in seven days. Price will be available to pitch the first and fifth games (or the fourth on short rest, if Toronto is facing elimination). Who are your other starters?
If you're going to use knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, he has to be your number-two starter. Dickey is Jekyll at home (8-3, 3.15 ERA) and Hyde away (2-8, 5.09). This also allows the American media to run wild with "Why is the dome closed?" conspiracy theories, so it's worth it just for that.
That moves the team's second-best starter – Marcus Stroman – into the third spot. It sounds a little batty, but the 24-year-old sophomore may be the Jays' most mentally resilient player. Stroman consumes pressure the way Godzilla favours hot nuclear rods – it makes him stronger. Pushing Stroman out of the trench in hostile territory is a risk, but the sort that can turn a series if it works.
That leaves either Marco Estrada or Mark Buehrle as your fourth option. In all likelihood, this is Buehrle's choice to make. He's been run down lately, but looked solid in his last outing. The Jays will have to trust Buehrle to tell them if he's good enough to go. If he is, you listen to him.
It's a lot of guesswork, and the sort that can make you look foolish if things go wrong. But after Wednesday's final out, the playoffs functionally began. This is the part where you move your army into an advantageous position.
The final week and a half is about taking the high ground. Ask Sun Tzu how important this part is.