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Slumping Yankees must get healthy and rebound in second half

Dellin Betances of the Yankees walks to the

Dellin Betances of the Yankees walks to the dugout against the Angels at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 2017. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Dellin Betances thought about the question, but not for too long.

So, who are the actual Yankees? Are they the team that reached 15 games over .500 in June, or the one that practically crashed and burned into the All-Star break, losing 17 of 25 games?

“For me, I think we’re the team that was 15 over .500,” Betances said. “I just have confidence in the group that we have.”

A group that surpassed, early on anyway, the modest expectations set for it in spring training. Although no one called 2017 a rebuilding year, the prevailing thought, shared and endorsed by many Yankees fans, was that this season would be about a slew of young players getting their feet wet in ramping up for contention in 2018 and beyond.

But a quiet confidence permeated the Yankees in Florida as they posted a Grapefruit League-best 24-9 record. That success carried over into the regular season with a 15-8 April and a 15-12 May that left them 30-20. After a win in Anaheim June 12 they were 38-23 and led Boston by four games in the AL East. But a combination of factors, primarily a leaky bullpen and rapid-fire injuries to offensive standouts Aaron Hicks, Matt Holliday and Starlin Castro and resurgent pitcher CC Sabathia, helped contribute to staggering into the break.

The Yankees (45-41) face a challenging 11-game trip through Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle to start the second half. They are 3 ½ games behind the division-leading Red Sox and will begin a four-game series against them Friday night.

“I wish we were in first place,” Aaron Judge said, “but we’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of guys go down, but we also had a lot of guys step up for us. A lot of young talent came up and produced for us, and there’s a lot more guys in the minor leagues still to come up.”

Some of the ones who produced are top position prospects Tyler Wade, Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler, who suffered a horrible knee injury in the first inning of his first big-league start. But if the Yankees are to make a second-half run, it won’t be because of those prospects, or any others who might get an opportunity.

It will be, just to name a few reasons, because Judge continues putting balls into the stratosphere; Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery keep exceeding expectations; Aroldis Chapman and Betances pitch in the back end of the bullpen the way they’re expected; and the injured return and pick up where they left off.

“Over the last four weeks we haven’t played good baseball,” Betances said. “But I think getting some of these guys back, Castro, Holliday and hopefully Hicks, soon (will help). I see the bullpen doing a better job, meaning myself . . . I feel if I do my job, we’ll be in a good spot.”

The AL’s top team, the Astros, handled the Yankees in two series, winning five of seven games. But one of Houston’s top arms, All-Star righthander Lance McCullers, said the Yankees have the look of a club his team could see in October.

“If they’re healthy and they have all the pieces, there’s no reason that team can’t make a serious run,” McCullers said at the All-Star Game. “They have young talent, they have veteran talent. They have some electric, electric arms on the mound, they have an amazing bullpen with Betances and Chapman. If you’re creating a team, like on a video game, it would be constructed a lot like theirs.”

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