If this season unfolded with 162 games, the odds that the New York Yankees would be fending off the Baltimore Orioles for eighth place and an American League playoff spot would be considered a long shot.
Instead this season features an expanded postseason field that is proving anything can happen, and the Yankees find themselves attempting to hold off the Orioles in the playoff race Thursday when the AL East rivals begin a four-game series at Yankee Stadium.
Even less then a month ago, the idea of the Yankees struggling to hold onto eighth place would have been considered highly unlikely. After a 6-3 win over the Boston Red Sox completed a four-game sweep on Aug. 17, the Yankees were 16-6 and held a 2 1/2 game lead in the AL East.
Instead of expanding the division lead, the Yankees (22-21) are 6-15 in their last 21 games, six games behind the first-place Tampa Bay Rays, and just 1 1/2 games ahead of Baltimore, which went a combined 101-223 in the previous two seasons.
The Yankees ended their five-game skid Wednesday with a 7-2 victory at Toronto when Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu homered while New York went 3-for-8 with runners in scoring position after going only 2-for-32 in those spots during the losing streak.
"We've gotten beaten up here for a couple of weeks, especially this last week, and have lost some tough games," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "To finally get back in the win column, I think gives guys a chance to exhale as we head home."
The win occurred a day after general manager Brian Cashman made a rare appearance at a road game in a team meeting to say he still believes in the roster.
Three of New York's losses during the five-game skid were to the Orioles last weekend in Baltimore. Those games ended the Orioles' 19-game skid to the Yankees and were part of Baltimore's four-game winning streak that was halted with Wednesday's 7-6 loss to the New York Mets.
Despite blowing a 5-1 lead, the Orioles (20-22) are 6-3 in their last nine games and getting standout performances from rookie Ryan Mountcastle and D.J. Stewart.
"It definitely is feeling like the postseason," Baltimore starting pitcher Jorge Lopez said through an interpreter. "I think we have a pretty good team. We look forward to playing every single day."
Mountcastle had four hits Wednesday to raise his batting average to .383 and has driven in a run in five straight games. Stewart hit three homers last weekend against the Yankees and has homered in a career-high four straight games after connecting again Wednesday.
Rio Ruiz hit a three-run homer Tuesday, drove in two runs Wednesday and is hitting .353 (12-for-34) during a 10-game hitting streak.
One of Baltimore's wins last weekend came off Gerrit Cole, who will pitch the series opener. Cole (4-3, 3.63 ERA) has lost three straight starts and has a 5.63 ERA in those starts.
Cole has lost three straight starts for the first time since July 30-Aug. 10, 2018 and is trying to avert dropping four straight starts for the first time in his career.
Cole has allowed six homers during his skid and his 13 homers allowed are tied with Detroit's Matthew Boyd for the most in the majors. He allowed a homer to Stewart in Saturday's 6-1 loss when he allowed five runs (one earned) on four hits in five innings.
Cole is 1-1 with a 2.10 ERA in four career starts against Baltimore and will be opposed by rookie left-hander Keegan Akin, who pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings while facing Cole.
Akin (0-0, 2.08) is holding hitters to a .174 average (8-for-46) in his first four appearances and has allowed two unearned runs with 14 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings over his first two starts.
--Field Level Media
Slumping Yankees face challenge from plucky O's
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