Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 1, 2022

An August To Forget

It’s verging on panic time in the Bronx.  If that’s not yet true in the New York Yankees’ clubhouse, nor in the team’s executive offices, it is surely the case among many of the paying customers who fill the three tiers of seats at Yankee Stadium, and absolutely the prevailing emotion on social media, where fans of the AL East leaders are busy reinforcing one another’s expressions of anger and dismay.  Those who chose to stay up late on Wednesday rued the decision on a bleary-eyed Thursday morning, after their heroes fell 3-2 to the Angels in far-off Anaheim.  The loss gave New York a record of just 3-4 on the West Coast portion of its current road trip, which continues with a three-game series this weekend against the second-place Tampa Bay Rays, now only six games adrift in the division standings. 

A roughly .500 mark on the road might be deemed acceptable against stiff opposition, but prior to stopping in southern California the Yankees were at the other end of the state, in Oakland.  The Angels and A’s are a combined 50 games under .500.  Oakland signaled it would not be competitive this season back in the winter months when it traded away talent, a decision reinforced by a further fire sale at the trade deadline.  In Anaheim, a promising start to this year’s campaign dissolved in an extended losing streak and eventual managerial firing before the first day of summer.  But the Yankees were unable to post a winning record against the dregs of the AL West, falling short by a single run in three of the four defeats.  The last of those, on Wednesday, brought to an even dozen the team’s one-run losses since the All-Star break, by far the most in the majors in that timeframe. 

Fans searching for something to cheer might hitch their hopes to that stat and suggest it shows the Yankees are ever so close to righting the ship and becoming again the franchise that dominated the Great Game through the first half of the season.  But a more jaundiced and assuredly more popular view is that the number exposes a lack of timely hitting.  What is certain is that except for Aaron Judge, Yankee batters up and down the lineup have disappointed fans.  For some players, like Aaron Hicks and Josh Donaldson, that has been true throughout the season.  Others, such as Gleyber Torres and Anthony Rizzo, waited until the heat of summer to go ice cold at the plate.  A third group, led by Giancarlo Stanton and DJ LeMahieu, can blame nagging injuries for throwing them off their game.

Then there is shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who went from the Rangers to the Yankees by way of the Twins during the last offseason.  IKF, as he is known, spent about a minute and a half in Minnesota before being shipped to the Bronx, along with Donaldson and a minor league catcher, in exchange for Gary Sanchez and Gia Urshela.  Yankee fans had spent the winter debating which of the high-priced free agent shortstops on the market would look best in pinstripes.  By March it was apparent that general manager Brian Cashman had decided against opening owner Hal Steinbrenner’s checkbook for a glamorous signing and was instead looking for a stopgap at the infield’s most critical position, since the Yankees had not one but two promising shortstop prospects in the franchise’s farm system.

Fans who had imagined Carlos Correa or Corey Seager playing short in the Bronx on Opening Day were thus predisposed to find IKF lacking, and to be eager for the callup of Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe from the minors.  It was a tough position for IKF from his first day as a Yankee, but he has done little to win over doubters.  While his batting average briefly hovered near .300 early in the season, it has since settled into the .260 range, and his hits, on a team known for the past century as the Bronx Bombers, are overwhelmingly of the single base variety.  He only recently managed his first home run of the campaign, and his OPS is a meager .625 and OPS+ a below-league-average 81.  Fans might tolerate that if the tradeoff was stellar defense, but in the field IKF, who began his career as a third baseman, has been a liability.  His most recent error, a muff of a routine grounder in Wednesday’s game, set the stage for the three-run homer that turned a New York lead into a deficit.

The faithful in Gotham have had plenty of targets for their growing ire, and the team’s woeful 10-18 mark in the month of August, its worst single month record in more than three decades, has exhausted the patience of much of the franchise’s fanbase.  The first of those ten wins, on the very first day of the month, was New York’s 70th victory of the season, a number then unmatched by any other franchise.  One month later, the Dodgers have 90 wins, and the Mets, Astros, and Atlanta have at least 80, all passing the Yankees by.  In New York, fans are suddenly cognizant of how few changes there have really been to a roster that underperformed time and again in recent seasons.

The few remaining cheerleaders point to the 1996 squad, which wasn’t much better during the same month, finishing that August with 13 wins and 17 losses.  Or they look to the 2000 Yankees, a roster that stumbled to the finish, losing 14 of its final 17 games.  Both those teams managed to win the AL East, and, of far greater importance, both ended the year riding up New York’s Canyon of Heroes in a celebratory parade.

Perhaps this season will have a similar denouement, with the travails of high summer nothing more than loose ends easily explained away in the triumphant final scene.  The catcalls that players have heard, the boos at the mention of Cashman or Steinbrenner or manager Aaron Boone, all forgotten in the championship glow.

If that is where the path through the regular season’s final month and the playoffs that follow is going to lead, this weekend would be an excellent time for the Yankees to start down it.  Winning two or all three at Tropicana Field, perhaps with the help of Peraza, who finally got his call to join the big club on Thursday, would help deflate the Rays’ rising hopes and tamp down fans’ increasingly vocal disquiet.  But if the series against Tampa Bay goes the other way, then an unexpected division race will be on, and the team’s likely reception when it returns home on Labor Day may make the Yankees wish they could stay on the road. 

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