NEW YORK — Over in the National League, the Wild Card Game matchup seemed set weeks ago.

Here in the American League, no one wants to acknowledge that any part of it is set yet.

“I think it’s still too early,” New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Thursday, when someone asked who he might start in the AL Wild Card Game. “Because nothing’s decided yet.”

Technically, he’s right. Realistically, the Yankees are headed for baseball’s one-game, do-or-die round for the first time in their history, and the question that matters more than anything is whether they’re set up to win it.

And the answer is, that depends.

It depends on whether Masahiro Tanaka is healthy enough to pitch (the Yankees say they expect he will be). It depends on which team the Yankees face (too close to say).

The Yankees hold a comfortable lead for the first wild-card spot and the chance to host the October 6 game. The race for the second spot is so close that my friends Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times and Jayson Stark of both wrote stories Thursday explaining what will happen if there’s a two- or three-way tie.

That’s good for the Yankees (although a three-way tie would push the Wild Card Game to October 7, the day before the Division Series begins). Even better would be the Minnesota Twins emerging as the second wild-card team, however it happens.

The Twins have a long history of losing in New York. They also have the small problem that the guy who is pitching best for them—Ervin Santana, 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA over five starts since August 30—is ineligible for the postseason because of his April drug suspension.

The Twins would come to New York without a true No. 1 starter. The Houston Astros could show up with Dallas Keuchel, who might win the American League Cy Young (and who threw seven shutout innings at Yankee Stadium just last month). The Los Angeles Angels fall somewhere in between.

The Yankees believe they have a true No. 1, but only if Tanaka can pitch. He missed Wednesday’s scheduled start in Toronto with a hamstring strain, and the Yankees still haven’t said when he’ll pitch next.

“I’d be surprised if he’s not available in the near future,” Girardi said, adding after the game that Tanaka got a good update Thursday from the Yankees’ doctor.

Tanaka’s recent form has been good (a 1.29 ERA in his last three starts). He has shown the ability to control a game against a good lineup (seven shutout innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 13).

“He can be a dominant pitcher,” Yankees closer Andrew Miller said.

And the Yankees wouldn’t need him to pitch nine innings. Their bullpen depth has become a big concern, but in the postseason they should have Adam Warren in the bullpen along with Miller, Dellin Betances and Justin Wilson.

“They only need five innings from the starter,” said one rival scout who has been following the Yankees. “Betances would pitch the sixth and seventh, and Miller the eighth and ninth.”

All they need to do is get a lead. And that’s where it should help that they’ll be playing at home.

The Yankees are built for their ballpark. For the season, they’ve hit 108 home runs in 74 home games.

“If you don’t think our lineup is built to play here, you’re naive,” Miller said.

They’ll take their chances. If it comes down to one game to save their season—and it sure looks like it will—the Yankees believe they’ll be in good position to win it.

“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure the team we’d be playing would feel the same way,” Miller said.

History won’t tell you much. The Wild Card Game is only in its fourth year, and no real patterns have developed yet.

Teams have won with true aces (Madison Bumgarner for the San Francisco Giants last year in Pittsburgh), and without them (Joe Saunders won for the Baltimore Orioles in 2012 in Texas). Two games were shutouts, and one finished 9-8 in 12 innings (Kansas City over Oakland, last year).

Road teams have won four of the six games, but any team involved would still tell you they’d rather play at home.

Actually, every team in it would tell you they’d rather have avoided it, that they wish they’d finished in first place and advanced straight to the division series.

The Yankees were in that spot earlier this week. Technically, they still are, although after two losses in three games in Toronto, it’s clear that being in the best shape for the Wild Card Game has also become a major concern.

“We need to win games,” Girardi said, before pausing and adding, “and we’ve got to keep guys healthy.”

If they keep the guys they have now healthy, they should have a real chance. If they get Tanaka healthy, they should have an even better chance.

If they get the right opponent, they should have the best chance of all.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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