Yankees shrug off injuries to set records, dominate AL East
The hitters in the New York Yankees lineup found themselves speculating Tuesday about when the record would fall. For 27 consecutive games, a stretch in which the Yankees built a sizable lead over the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox in the American League East, at least one Yankee had hit a home run. No team had ever done it 28 games in a row.
The Yankees viewed possession of the record as a fait accompli; they only wondered who would go deep first.
As the players prepared to face the hapless Toronto Blue Jays, outfielder Aaron Hicks puffed his chest. He informed fellow outfielder Aaron Judge that the record would not last into the third inning, with Hicks batting seventh. Judge offered a retort that encapsulated the confidence brimming in the Yankees lineup.
“I don’t think it’s going to last that long,” Judge said.
Judge, after all, was batting second, and few hitters in the sport are more fearsome. But even he never got a chance. The record was shattered in the first at-bat in the bottom of the first inning, when infielder D.J. LeMahieu smashed a hanging slider from Blue Jays pitcher Clayton Richard into the left-field seats. Unable to make history, but still ferocious, Judge hit a homer three pitches later.
“There’s no easy outs throughout the lineup, that’s for sure,” LeMahieu said. “And you get to the middle of our lineup, it’s pretty scary.”
Manager Aaron Boone noted how the depth of the offense drained opposing pitchers. The group entered Friday’s games ranked fourth in baseball in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage. The lineup does not revolve around one star, so “it doesn’t take the whole offense to be hot at once to score a bunch of runs,” Boone said.
“Anybody from the leadoff to the No. 9 hitter can do damage,” Encarnacion said. “So every day, it’s somebody different. That’s the mark of a good team.”
The Yankees entered the weekend holding a nine-game lead over Boston. But little in the team’s season has unfolded according to plan. Giancarlo Stanton has appeared in only nine games, and returned to the injured list with a knee strain earlier this week. Judge missed two months with a strained oblique. Miguel Andujar, their third baseman on opening day, underwent season-ending surgery in May.
The pitchers aren’t immune, either. A shoulder impingement has prevented four-time All-Star reliever Dellin Betances from pitching this season. Luis Severino, another two-time All-Star, hasn’t pitched this year as he recovers from an injured shoulder and a strained lat muscle.
Yet the Yankees have not wavered. They have benefited from the redundancy built into the roster by the front office of general manager Brian Cashman. The predilections of Cashman, who has run the team’s baseball operations department since 1998, have never been a secret. He prefers starting pitchers who induce groundballs, relievers who miss bats and hitters with power. He has stockpiled an array of those assets, which has allowed the team to weather the slew of injuries.
“We’ve tried to mix and match, and cover us much as we can,” Cashman said. “And we’ll keep trying. But I’m not sure if it’s any different from anybody else’s efforts.”
The acquisition and retention of first baseman Luke Voit and third baseman Gio Urshela were shrewd moves. Cashman nabbed Voit from the St. Louis Cardinals last summer and inserted him at first base this season when the oft-injured Greg Bird hurt his foot; Voit entered the weekend with 17 home runs and an .877 on-base plus slugging percentage. The team acquired Urshela from Toronto last August and kept him in the organization during the winter. With Andujar down, Urshela has hit .303 with an .812 OPS.
The addition of LeMahieu, who had spent the previous eight seasons at second base for the Colorado Rockies, has provided a safety net for Boone as he crafts his defensive alignment. LeMahieu took a two-year, $24 million contract with the Yankees, even though they could not offer him a stable defensive position, with Andujar at third, Gleyber Torres at second base and Troy Tulowitzki brought on as a lottery ticket at shortstop.
Tulowitzki went down early, but Gregorius returned this month from an elbow injury suffered last October. LeMahieu has bounced between second and third base. He will start at second base in the All-Star Game. He has a .906 OPS and leads the team in wins above replacement. Judge called him the team’s MVP — high praise considering the roster also includes catcher Gary Sanchez (23 homers, .939 OPS), Torres (19 homers, .903 OPS) and closer Aroldis Chapman (23 saves, 1.45 ERA).
“We’ve got so many good players,” LeMahieu said. “For me, there’s no pressure.”
Cashman experienced success in the free-agent market this winter, finding LeMahieu plus relievers Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino. Even so, he declined to shower himself with praise for any visionary usage of LeMahieu as a utility player.
“I know a lot of other teams were on him,” Cashman said. “But I’ve got to believe that he signed here because this is where he got the most money. And he was going to be an everyday player, but he was going to get everyday at-bats at multiple positions.”
The Yankees have not won their division since 2012. The strengths of the roster — the offense and the bullpen — should be enough to keep them in first place. But for October, the team is likely to pursue help for its starting rotation ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. The team has the assets necessary to acquire a pitcher such as Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman or San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner.
Until then, the offense will try to extend the record of homers. The clubhouse decor offers a reminder about the potential of their collective effort. Judge mentioned a sign hanging up near the entrance to the dugout. “Do your job,” it reads.
“That’s what everybody’s doing,” Judge said. “It’s fun to be a part of it, and it makes it fun to come to work here. Because you know the man next to you is going to bust his butt. We’ve got something special here.”
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