On July 4, the Yankees were a mess.
They weren’t hitting, throwing, or fielding well. Their record (42-41) and playoff outlook (five and a half games from the second wildcard spot in the American League) reflected it. Fans wanted people fired. And just days earlier, General Manager Brian Cashman warned that if the team’s game didn’t improve, changes would come, bluntly saying the team was as bad as it could be.
That felt far away on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, where the roar from the stands and the dugout of the house throughout the day were the latest evidence that the Yankees’ trajectory has changed dramatically.
On Wednesday morning, the Yankees woke up with the Oakland Athletics for the highest wildcard spot in the American League. By beating Boston in a doubleheader on Tuesday in the Bronx, the Yankees overtook the sputtering Red Sox and then jumped one percentage point over in the playoff race (a win percentage from 0.567 to 0.566). It marked the first time since May 15 that the Yankees had a share of second place in their division.
“It’s obviously a great feeling to look at the standings now,” Yankees first baseman Luke Voit said late Tuesday night.
In six weeks, the Yankees have not only cleared a significant backlog, but also a lot of doubt about their prospects. They were among the preseason favorites to compete for a division and World Series title, but the Yankees showed only a fleeting glimpse of that in the first three months of the 2021 season. A solid May was wedged in by a maddening one. April and June.
Of course there were injuries, but that didn’t stop the Yankees, a team with a lot of resources, in previous seasons. Their beating, though long a force, suddenly failed them. Coupled with poor defense and problems on the mound in June, it looked like the team was going nowhere.
To make matters worse, their rivals sent them further into a downward spiral. The Yankees started the season with seven straight defeats to the Red Sox, who were initially not expected to be a top contender, but held the top spot in the AL East for most of the year. On July 4, arguably the low point of the Yankees’ season so far, the Red Sox had an AL best 53-32 record and led the Tampa Bay Rays by four and a half games in the division.
However, the tables have turned thanks to the Yankees’ improved play, improbable contributions from fill-ins, and a wave of talent that Cashman acquired before the July 30 trade deadline. Undermined by poor defense and pitching of late, the Red Sox have been standing 16-21 since July 4, while the Yankees are a major league best 26-11. (The defending AL and division champion Rays rose to first place on July 31.)
“It’s a team that has a lot of heart and plays with a lot of confidence,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of his squad, adding later: “It’s great that we got back into it, but we still have a long way to go.”
But how far the Yankees have come was already revealed on Tuesday. In the second game of the doubleheader, a 2-0 victory, the Yankees knocked down Red Sox All-Star-pitcher Nathan Eovaldi with solo homeruns by Giancarlo Stanton and Voit. Rookie pitcher Luis Gil extended his scoreless streak to 15⅔ innings, making him the first pitcher in major league history to have a scoreless start in each of his first three career appearances, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The battery of pitcher Jordan Montgomery and catcher Gary Sanchez, who both returned from the Covid-19 injured list, gave up three runs over four and two-thirds innings in the first game of the doubleheader, a 5-3 win.
Andrew Velazquez, a Bronx native who filled in for injured short stop Gleyber Torres, hit an important single with two runs in the second inning. Voit, recently back from his third trip to the injured list this year, delivered a leading two-run single in the fifth.
And reliever Jonathan Loaisiga, who bore a heavier burden due to an injury to closer Aroldis Chapman and the ineffectiveness of Zack Britton, threw two strong last two innings. It was the fourth game in a row in which another Yankees-pitcher (Albert Abreu, Wandy Peralta, Chad Green and Loaisiga) recorded the save. Neither Abreu nor Peralta stood on the Yankees’ opening day.
“We play good baseball,” said Montgomery, whose rotational buddy, ace Gerrit Cole, also returned from the Covid list the day before and also led the Yankees to victory. “I’m glad I could come back and not ruin this.”
A mid-season shake-up of the roster also helped. Over the years, one shortcoming of the Yankees’ offense was that it had become too right-handed. So Cashman traded for lefthanded batters Anthony Rizzo, a World Series-winning first baseman with the Chicago Cubs, and Joey Gallo, a star outfielder with the Texas Rangers.
Gallo’s presence helped Boone Tuesday. After Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge walked righthanded reliever Garrett Whitlock in the fifth inning, Red Sox Manager Alex Cora brought in lefthanded reliever Josh Taylor to face Gallo. But after Gallo walked, Voit got the favorable match-up – and produced the lead single. Next, Boone had a righthanded Stanton pinchhit for lefthanded Rougned Odor, and Stanton also drove in a run.
When Rizzo returns soon, the Yankees will have a problem they didn’t often have earlier in the season: too many healthy, capable players for too few places. Voit, whose playing time was threatened by the Rizzo trade, tripped over himself.
“I finally feel like I’m up and running after getting a week’s worth of games under me,” he said, then noted that he finished in the top 10 in the AL Most Valuable Player Award voting in the pandemic. – shortened 2020 season.
“I’ve been a great player for this organization for the past three years and I’m not going down,” he continued. “I want to play. Of course I know it will be difficult with Rizzo, but I deserve to play as much as he did. Last year I led the league in home runs and I feel really good again. It is clear that the injury bug the reason he’s here, because of me. But I hope Boonie can do what he can to try and give me some consistent at bats.”
Stanton said his recent move to the outfield from the designated batter’s spot in the lineup would help make room for Rizzo and Voit. “We are dangerous everywhere and that only makes us more,” he said.
Boone said he planned to take a day-to-day look at the lineup, much like his measured approach when the Yankees struggled earlier in the season, now flying back to the playoff race.
“We have to play really good baseball if we want to get where we need to go,” he said. “So whether we’re chasing, moving forward – whatever – we have to play well. We have just over 40 games left. It’s great that we’re in a position where we have control over what we do and we can have control over our season. But the bottom line is that we haven’t actually done anything yet.”