A season that in its first few months looked like it could end in historic success now carries the potential to be ruined by a historic collapse.
The Yankees led the AL East by a lead of 15 1/2 games less than two months ago; after their loss Saturday night, the lead over the Rays dropped to four games with four more head-to-head matches left between the two teams in the next week.
Boone discarded his signature optimism Saturday night, telling reporters that “if we don’t dig ourselves out, you’ll have a great story to write.”
The story would be damning toward just about everyone responsible for the Yankees’ success at the major-league level, aside from soon-to-be free agent Aaron Judge, who hit his 52nd home run of the season Saturday to save his team from a second consecutive shutout loss. He then hit a career high 53rd home run in Sundays 2-1 win to escape the series with a win and get the division lead back up to 5 games. But again 5 games isn’t much breathing room when you let a 15 game lead slip away in less than two months.
The blame falls on team owner Hal Steinbrenner, who has operated the biggest club in the sport with an eye toward frugality instead of talent. It will fall on general manager Brian Cashman, who built the roster that is currently competing on par with a rebuilding team.
It is Boone’s responsibility to get the most from his players and manage games with urgency. It is on the three hitting coaches on staff to shorten player slumps. And it is on the players to execute on the field and grapple with the responsibilities of a job in the major leagues.
Over a span of 30 days leading up to Saturday’s game, the Yankees hit .213/.289/.325, the worst offense in the American League in that span. The Yankees have dealt with injuries during that time but also underperformed relative to teams with far less baseline talent in their lineups, even relative to this diminished New York squad. Judge has made a valiant effort at keeping the team going through this slide, hitting .279/.446/.593 in that span. When Judge’s numbers are excluded from the team stats, the performance falls to a lowly .206/.268/.295 — team production at a level that would make it hard for any individual player to stick on a major-league roster.
I know Judge has a 6’8″, 280 lbs frame but even that is too much dead weight for the super human to carry for months at a time.
The Yankees had just three hits and zero walks in Saturday’s loss to the Rays. The at-bat quality throughout the lineup has deteriorated as the offensive freefall has played out over the last month. At a time when the sky is falling for the Yankees, the level of effort demonstrated by most of their hitters night after night is diminishing rather than increasing.
“We talked about it all the time, walking that fine line as a hitter in a failing game of being really dialed in and really focused on your plan, the right level of intensity, but also calm and relaxed in the box,” Boone said Saturday night. “When we’re at our best, we’re controlling the strike zone and taking advantage of mistakes. Right now that’s not happening. You’ve gotta be tough-minded right now.”
The Yankees that once looked destined for an easy walk to the division title have already collapsed. There is no other way to describe giving up 11 1/2 games from the division cushion in such a short period of time. The only question now is if the collapse will be of real consequence or if they will claw their way through the final month of the season.
“We’re gonna find out what we’re made of,” Boone said Saturday. “We’re as deep in adversity as you can get. A lot of people out there are really mad. What’s our response? We’re in control of it. It’s on us to do it. It’s there to do it.”
The Yankees have made attempts in recent weeks to spark something in their performance. Due to a mix of desperation, injuries and expanded rosters in September, there is a row of five consecutive lockers in the Yankees’ visiting clubhouse in St. Petersburg belonging to players who were playing in the minor leagues as recently as 18 days ago. Earlier in the year, the roster was managed as if the 15 1/2-game lead was impenetrable.
On Sunday, the Yankees tried to avoid the 3 game sweep, and once again looked to Aaron Judge to lead the way.
Judge led the Yankees to a 2-1 win over the Rays on Sunday by going 3-for-5 with a home run (his 53rd of the season) and a run scored on a sacrifice fly by Oswaldo Cabrera. New York avoided being swept by Tampa Bay with the win, preserving its lead in the AL East at five games.
The Yankees got out to an early, though slim, lead when Judge homered on the second pitch of the game off Rays starter Shawn Armstrong. Judge has moved from his regular spot in the two-hole to batting third and leadoff in recent days as manager Aaron Boone tries to find a lineup formula that will allow them to eke out some runs.
“My job at the top of the lineup is just trying to get on base to get to the guy behind me,” Judge said Sunday night.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) September 4, 2022
“Aaron just, in every aspect, set the tone,” Boone said after Sunday’s win.
The ability to stay calm and consistent under pressure has been Judge’s standout quality this season, especially as many of his teammates have seemed affected by the attention and criticism surrounding the team.
“It’s a challenge,” Boone said of his players’ response to pressure and “noise.”
“Everyone deals with it in different ways, but I would say I feel like it’s been creeping in with these guys a little bit. You’ve got to be able to fight through that.”
Judge’s performance and durability this season have offered confirmation, if it was needed, that he is a superstar-level player in his prime. He’s appeared in 130 of the Yankees’ 134 games and has played 67 games in center field. The Yankees made him a large offer on a contract extension before Opening Day, but Judge saw more value in himself than in the $213.5 million offer and has already proven his case with still a month left in the season.
Throughout the year, Judge has consistently declined to engage with questions about his own success versus that of the team. A home run in a team loss that gets him closer to Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a season is still a loss.
Amid a dramatic Yankees season full of highs and lows, Judge has offered the most excitement with consistent production and prodigious power, but none of the drama.
In a perfect world the Yankees cruise to a World Series title, Judge shatters the home run record, and they cap it off with a long term contract extension. But nothing in life is perfect, and these Yankees flaws are too jarring to ignore.
So with Judge’s HR chase at the forefront of the media, the main focal point inside that locker room is getting wins. The record without the wins will sour this season like no other.