Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 26, 2021

Signs Of Life In The Bronx

When last we visited the New York Yankees, both literally by traveling to the Bronx and in this space, the Bombers were playing more like bums.  As the country prepared to celebrate the Fourth of July, the Yankees were limping along at a .500 pace.  At least one loss a week seemed to come in particularly ugly fashion, to the point that manager Aaron Boone’s repeated use of the term “gut punch” to describe those recurring debacles was being derided by both fans and pundits.  In nightly chants from the stands and across various social media platforms, the faithful were screaming that both fourth-year field boss Boone and longtime GM Brian Cashman should be shown the door.  It was noted here that New York was scheduled to play fourteen of sixteen games immediately before and after mid-July’s All-Star break against three contending teams – Houston, Boston and Tampa Bay.  The suggestion was that the outcome of that stretch would indicate whether the Yankees could salvage the 2021 season.

As every fan of the Great Game knows, one should always be wary of results based on small samples.  The longest season is 162 games, in which a full-time player sees upwards of 600 plate appearances, so it is foolish to pass judgment based on his performance in a single contest, whether the day at the plate ends 4-for-5 or 0-for-4.  With one rainout, the Yankees came out of those games with seven wins and six losses, including, predictably enough, a pair of late inning gut punch defeats.  It was a better result than losing ten games and all four series, but hardly awe-inspiring.  Yet the sample size was still only thirteen games, less than one-tenth of the schedule. 

That stretch ended with a 14-0 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field on the day before this season’s trading deadline.  It was the largest shutout loss by the Yankees in fourteen years, although since Tampa Bay led 4-0 before Gerrit Cole managed to record a single out in the 1st inning, the shellacking at least didn’t qualify as a gut punch in Boone’s postgame comments.  But since then, the Yankees have won twenty-one of twenty-five games, including eleven in a row heading into a Thursday night matchup against the A’s in Oakland.  With a little help from the stumbling Red Sox and the running-in-place Athletics and Mariners, that red hot month of play has enabled New York to vault over all three of those clubs and into the top AL Wild Card spot, still behind but within sight of the Rays for the East Division lead.  A franchise that was exactly one game above .500 at the season’s halfway mark now sports the third best record in the American League.

The catalyst for the apparent turnaround was obviously not that presumably critical stretch of games against teams with eyes on the postseason.  Rather it was the July 30th closing of this year’s window for exchanging talent with other franchises.  In the final days of July Cashman made three significant deals, acquiring first baseman Anthony Rizzo from the Cubs, slugging outfielder Joey Gallo from the Rangers, and lefthanded starter Andrew Heaney from the Angels.  In each case the Yankees parted with midlevel prospects but managed to retain their most highly prized minor leaguers.  At least as important to owner Hal Steinbrenner, Cashman also managed to get the sending team to pay all or most of this year’s salary of the player being dealt to New York.  As a result, while it will be close the Yankees’ payroll should wind up under this season’s luxury tax threshold of $210 million.

For all the focus of fans and the press on the frenzy of deadline deals – and that is absolutely the right term for this year’s action, in which all thirty franchises made at least one trade, and ten players from this season’s All-Star rosters changed teams just a fortnight after representing their former club at Coors Field – not a single such deal comes with a guarantee.  The Yankees July moves certainly appear to have rejuvenated the team, but a closer look indicates it hasn’t exactly been in the way one might expect.

Rizzo’s first hit as a Yankee was a home run against the Marlins in just his third plate appearance in pinstripes, and he became the first player in franchise history with RBIs in his first six games.  Gallo recorded his initial Yankee moment with a monster home run to right field against the Mariners, and Heaney was impressive against the Red Sox last week.  But set aside selected moments and the statistics aren’t so pretty.  Since joining the team Rizzo’s batting line is .200/.311/.380, numbers that are all dramatically below the ones he put up in Chicago prior to being traded.  The same is true for Gallo, who’s hitting just .143, with an OPS more than 200 points lower than what he had in Texas.  Meanwhile on the mound, Heaney’s ERA through five starts is a full run higher than when he was pitching for the Angels.

But what the new arrivals have brought is a vastly improved attitude.  Rizzo’s outgoing personality has quickly won him fans, and he and Gallo have both played into the “Bronx Tale” hype of two Italian ballplayers suiting up for the Yankees.  Heaney won’t get any Cy Young Award votes, but he has helped stabilize a starting rotation gutted by injuries, and all three have voiced all the right sentiments about joining the Yankees.  Add in the call up from AAA of Andrew Velazquez, a 27-year-old utility player who grew up in the Bronx and who promptly starred both at the plate and in the field as New York beat Boston three times in two days last week, and suddenly a roster that spent four months looking like a group of mildly disgruntled corporate employees going through the motions of their jobs has been transformed into a team having fun.

That certainly was how things looked in last weekend’s series against the Yankees’ favorite punching bag, the Minnesota Twins.  Since 2000, including playoff contests, New York and Minnesota have now played a full season – 162 games.  The Yankees are 115-47 in those matchups, the most lopsided record between any two teams in MLB over that span.  Two of those wins came last Thursday night and Saturday afternoon.  The first victory was powered by backup catcher Kyle Higashioka, who smacked a three-run homer to left, and Velazquez, who went 2-for-3 as the Yankees won 7-5.  Then on Saturday Minnesota’s Kenta Maeda largely held the New York lineup in check for the Twins until leaving with an injury in the 5th inning, at which point the Yankees exploded against Minnesota’s bullpen, pulling away to win 7-1.

What remains unknown is which version of this year’s Bombers is real.  Is it the dominating squad of the past month, or the lethargic team that couldn’t get out of its own way through the season’s first four months?  Perhaps not much separates the two.  Seventeen games during New York’s last torrid month were decided by just one or two runs, and the Yankees posted a 14-3 mark in those contests.  The good news is that those were games the team was losing earlier in the season, often in gut punch fashion.  But close contests can turn on a single at-bat, or a manager’s decision on which reliever gets the call.  August may yet prove to be the springboard that launches the Yankees into a deep playoff run.  But it could also turn out to be just an illusory glimpse of what might have been.  The only certainty is that Cashman and Boone haven’t saved their jobs just yet.  The longest season still has a ways to go.

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