Five questions facing the Yankees as they begin the second half 3 1⁄2 games behind the first-place Red Sox:
1. Can Aaron Judge’s second half match his first?
One of the top pitchers in the AL, Lance McCullers of the Astros, discussed the challenge that was the first-half Judge, a strong candidate for AL MVP after swatting an MLB-best 30 homers and posting a .329/.448/.691 slash line with a 1.139 OPS.
“Usually you go into a game and you’re facing a team and they have a couple of big hitters on the team, there’s usually a plan you can go about with each hitter,” McCullers said in the AL All-Star locker room Tuesday. “If you execute these pitches you’re most likely going to be successful, not every time but mostly. But there are certain hitters in the game, and I think Judge is one of those guys, that you just have to mix and match and keep him guessing and kind of hope for the best.”
2. Will Dellin Betances regain the form that’s made him an All-Star four years running?
The 6-8 setup man looked as dominant as ever with a 0.40 ERA as late as June 21, but he had a 14.29 ERA in his last eight appearances.
He threw well in an outing before the All-Star break, but in his appearance Tuesday night, he walked two and threw two wild pitches, which didn’t inspire confidence his troubles were behind him. Even with a good Betances, the Yankees were in the market for relief help. Continued struggles by the reliever could doom the second half.
3. Speaking of the trade deadline, what’s in store there?
The Yankees are interested in bolstering their starting pitching and relief corps and with Greg Bird seeming less and less likely to return in 2017, they’ll explore the market for first-base help as well. But fans expecting a blockbuster are likely to be disappointed. Such a deal would require the inclusion of one or two of the club’s high-end prospects, and GM Brian Cashman doesn’t seem inclined at this point to part with any of them.
4. Can Masahiro Tanaka again pitch like an ace?
It didn’t happen much in the first half as the 28-year-old righthander pulled into the break 7-8 with a 5.47 ERA. Tanaka, who has an opt-out clause in his contract, has allowed 23 homers after surrendering 22 all of last season. For the Yankees to go where they think they can this season, they need Tanaka to perform the way he did in his first three years in pinstripes when he went 39-16 with a 3.12 ERA.
5. Who are the real Yankees?
The Yankees were one of the surprises of the season’s first two-plus months, reaching their high-water mark of 38-23 with a victory June 12 in Anaheim. But they slid into the break, losing 18 of 25 games to fall 31⁄2 games behind the Red Sox in the East. Boston certainly doesn’t look like they’re going to falter and the Rays, who improved by trading for shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, quietly have played their way into contention.
Was the Yankees’ skid a product of an inevitable come-back-to-the-pack stretch for a team playing over its head, or a confluence of events — injuries, struggles by the bullpen’s back end, etc. — leading to the rough period with a second-half surge to come?