Rest of AL 'More Than a Little Concerned' as Red-Hot Yankees Rise Up Standings

Bob KlapischFeatured Columnist IAugust 12, 2021

New York Yankees' DJ LeMahieu scores off an Aaron Judge single in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

It was late July and the New York Yankees were immersed in their worst emergency in years.

They'd just lost to the Boston Red Sox for the 10th time in 13 games, nine games out in the AL East, barely over .500 and had committed the worst-possible sin for a legacy franchise: they'd become irrelevant.

Manager Aaron Boone openly second-guessed his own decisions in a crushing 5-4 loss to Boston, during which the Sox scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth. The Fenway crowd cranked up its time-honored "Yankees suck" chant, but it was more of a joke than a declaration of war against a blood rival. The Bombers really were terrible.

The trade deadline was right around the corner. There were increasing calls on social media for GM Brian Cashman to recognize the hopelessness of the situation, pull up stakes and start over in 2022.

To the industry, it meant selling off the Yankees' best assets and initiate a rebuild. On the street, it meant an outright cave.

Cashman's response? Feverishly working the phones and saving the season.

Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

"It's up to me to do everything I can to fix it, Cashman said on July 31. "We'll see how it plays out."

One person familiar with Cashman's thinking said the GM never wavered. "There was no way Brian was ever intending to give up," he said. "That's not him."

It would've been too steep a drop for a team Vegas oddsmakers considered a World Series lock in spring training. Cashman did more than simply soldier on, however: he went scorched earth on the roster, acquiring five players in five days, including Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo. That sparked a turnaround that alerted the American League to the possibilities of a busy October in the Bronx.

Instead of the crash skeptics were predicting, the Yankees are now the hottest team in the majors. They've taken nine of their past 10 series. And while winning the East might still be a bridge too far—the Rays are now the division's power brokers, having blown past the slumping Sox—the Yankees are only 1.5 games out of the wild card. The postseason is very much on their minds.

"I think the focus of the guys is very aware of where we are in the season and the importance of this [hot streak]," Boone said via zoom this week. "I love the mindset; we're finding ways to win ballgames."

That's no small achievement, considering the Yankees looked so sluggish and un-athletic for the first four months. No AL offense was less efficient scoring a runner from first base. The situational hitting was just as brutal as the Yankees were among the worst at bringing a runner home from third with less than two out barely 40 percent of the time. They also lead the AL in runners left on base.

But that was the before The Great Makeover.

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Led by Rizzo, the Yankees won five of their first six games after the deadline. True, it helped to have two last-place teams lined up to help the newcomers assimilate. The Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, a combined 44 games under .500 at the time, were exactly what the Bombers needed. They took off on a sprint and have yet to slow down.

One American League official I spoke to said he's, "more than a little concerned" the Yankees are about to go to the after-burners. They're winning despite a flurry of injuries and COVID-19 cases. No less than 12 players have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list; five in the past month alone. Among those currently recovering are their two best starters (Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery), their recent sparkplug (Rizzo) and their front-line catcher (Gary Sanchez).

Add in Gleyber Torres (thumb), Aroldis Chapman (elbow) and Domingo German (shoulder), and Boone should've been overseeing an outright collapse. The alibi was ready and waiting. Instead, the Yankees have proven Boone right: with 31 come-from-behind victories, few teams in the majors are as dangerous late in the game. And that can-do attitude looms as the Bombers' best weapon in the postseason, especially with the imminent returns of the COVID-19 cases and starters Luis Severino and Corey Kluber.

The two hurlers, both recovering from arm injuries, could be back at the front of the rotation before September. That would give the Yankees a fearsome three-pronged weapon in any short series in the postseason. No wonder there's optimism up and down the franchise. DJ LeMahieu spoke for the rest of his teammates when he said, "it's been a little while since we've had that kind of confidence."

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Two important challenges are looming, though. The Yankees will face the Central Division-leading Chicago White Sox over the weekend, followed by a two-day, three-game set with the Red Sox early next week. The wild-card race will come into even sharper focus at the end of the month when the Yankees travel to Oakland for a four-game series. The A's are clinging to a slim lead for the second wild-card spot.

And then there's the possibility the coronavirus will continue to impact the Yankees roster.

"We don't know why it keeps happening," reliever Zack Britton said. "We're over 90 percent vaccinated [as a traveling group]. We did everything we felt we needed to do to protect ourselves."

Regarding the vaccines the majority of the Yankees received, Britton said, "We knew it didn't mean you can't get COVID, but it lessens the symptoms—which it has in some cases and hasn't in others. Guys are still getting severe symptoms like they never got the vaccine."

Still, the Yankees are hoping the worst will be over before the playoffs. The plan is to be at full strength by October. If all goes well, the franchise can thank Cashman, who not only laughed at July's doomsday scenario, but he also just might turn out to be the Yankees' MVP in 2021.


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