When the New York Yankees awoke in the Bay Area on Aug. 28, life couldn’t have been much better. They’d just won their 13th consecutive game, a rampage that began after they departed Iowa’s cornfields and powered through two weeks of impeccable baseball, rolling through four playoff-positioned teams on the way.
They were within four games of first place and enjoyed a 6 ½ game cushion for a wild-card spot. FanGraphs set their playoff probability at 97.8%. Their 13-game streak was the longest in franchise history since 1961.
“Any time you can push the record books with this organization,” ace Gerrit Cole said after reaching the 200-strikeout mark and firming up his Cy Young Award positioning, “it’s probably something special.”
The reality the Yankees face today is far different.
They have lost eight of their last 10 games, dropping a series to the 45-93 Orioles and also the nascent Blue Jays, who have won seven in a row to vault back into contention. Their AL East title dreams are doused, what with Tampa Bay holding a nine-game lead. They have ceded the top wild-card spot to Boston and lead the Blue Jays by just one game in the loss column.
Cole left his last start early with hamstring discomfort. FanGraphs’ metrics now say they’re a 68.3% shot to make the playoffs.
Reality feels a bit less rosy.
“We just haven't been playing good baseball,” outfielder Brett Gardner said after his home run provided the only offense in a 6-3 loss to Toronto on Wednesday, “and, obviously, that's something we've got to figure out here in relatively short order.
“Or our season will be over in short order.”
Too dramatic? Hardly.
The Blue Jays, Mariners and A’s are all within three games of the Yankees, and it’s that time of year when one of baseball’s great cliches rings true: There’s no point in watching the scoreboard when handling your own business will take care of everything.
The Yankees just need to win, a simple proposition that’s proving far too vexing of late. So what went wrong, and what’s ahead? Let’s explore:
Jumbo Package shrinks
There are few things in baseball more majestic than when behemoth Bombers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are healthy and productive at the same time. It’s no coincidence that the Yankees’ 13-game run came when both could not be kept off base or in the yard.
Judge produced a .500 on-base percentage and a 1.151 OPS in that streak, with three homers and 11 RBI; Stanton slugged six homers, with a .429 OBP and 1.266 OPS.
But power can slump, and the Yankees’ subsequent opponents have pitched the pair much more carefully in this 2-8 stretch, keeping Judge (.298 OBP) and Stanton (.268 OBP) off the bases, sending the offense into a skid where it’s averaged just 3.3 runs per game. Naturally, the duo can only be as good as what’s around them, which brings us to the third part of their so-called Jumbo Package outfield.
Left fielder Joey Gallo has become a more extreme and less productive version of himself since arriving from Texas at the trade deadline. The Yankees knew what they were getting – Gallo still leads the AL in walks and strikeouts. Yet he’s been lost in the Bronx, striking out 62 times and drawing just 30 walks, producing a .136/.303/.328 slash line.
Gallo and Anthony Rizzo’s arrival were supposed to steady a Yankees lineup that’s been wildly arrhythmic all season, leading to desultory Aprils and Junes but also wild hot streaks such as August’s epic run. It doesn’t help that Gleyber Torres’ defensive woes are so pronounced that the club is inclined to play defense-first Andrew Velazquez at shortstop.
That makes a team already too reliant on the home run even more desperate for run production. Of late, it’s been far from enough.
One reliever short
The Yankees are fortunate that their starting pitching has carried a decent share of the load – their 719 innings pitched rank fifth in the AL, keeping their relievers’ odometers relatively low. Yet a huge problem remains at the end of games: Aroldis Chapman.
His 3.86 ERA is a career worst, and he has been scored upon in four of his last eight outings. In three of those appearances, he faced the indignity of manager Aaron Boone coming out to take the ball from him and hand it to Lucas Luetge or Wandy Peralta, tasked with cleaning up a mess of Chapman’s creation.
The onramp to get Chapman right has vanished; his fastball command remains erratic and hitters are best suited to let Chapman get himself into trouble. Now, it is merely a night-to-night exercise in mitigation for Boone, who can only hope the good Chapman will show up when he pushes that button.
Should Boone lose more faith in Chapman, he may have to turn to his other options more frequently, even if it means untenable situations like pitching three nights in a row or four out of five.
It’s a stomach-turning way to slog through September.
The other guys? Pretty good!
It’s felt like an angst-ridden late summer for the Red Sox, what with frittering away a 4 1/2-game division lead, seeing the Yankees turn the tables on them in head-to-head matchups and then suffering through a brutal COVID-19 outbreak that touched every part of the roster.
Yet Boston has quietly won 10 of 17 through all that, good enough for the Yankees skid to bring them back to the pack.
And then there are the Blue Jays.
They have the 1-2 favorites for MVP, Non-Ohtani Division, in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien. Lefty Robbie Ray may have surpassed Cole as Cy Young favorite. They are a different team when George Springer is healthy, winning 27 of 42 upon his return in June before a knee injury sent him to the IL in August. They’ve won six of seven since his Aug. 30 return, including five wins over the A’s and Yankees, seizing control of their destiny.
And while the Yankees loaded up on slugging at the deadline, Toronto added ace Jose Berrios, who will start Thursday’s series finale at Yankee Stadium.
After that? The Blue Jays get four games at Camden Yards against those Orioles.
It’s a lot to fend off. And for the Yankees, it’s just another headache during a final month in which the odds have turned decidedly against them.