Despite Sunday’s down-to-the-final-out intrigue, the Yankees’ playoff fate never really hinged on the team that awaits them this week.
It’s about which Yankees team shows up Tuesday.
Figuring out the opponent was the easy part. Relatively. It took nearly three months, 60 games, and 24/7 vigilance against the coronavirus, but MLB’s oft-interrupted schedule ultimately spit out Cleveland as the AL’s fourth seed.
But the Yankees? They’ve been an enigma all season, a streaky group who played like champions one week and chumps the next. Beyond tumbling to the No. 5 spot in the AL playoff bracket, courtesy of Sunday’s machinations, which included another zombie-stroll, 5-0 loss to the Marlins, this team doesn’t fit neatly into any box. These Yankees defy you to categorize them.
"I think we have the best team in the league still," DJ LeMahieu said minutes after his AL batting title (.364) made him the first player since 1900 to do it in both leagues. "We’re definitely the most talented. I don’t know why it was so up and down. I’ll chalk it up to 2020."
Up and down? These were not slight fluctuations. The Yankees careened from success to failure and back again, mostly with the same personnel, and many times with manager Aaron Boone unable to do more than shrug when asked about his club’s Jekyll-Hyde swings.
Through the season’s first three weeks, the World Series seemed like a lock, as the Yankees sprinted to a 16-6 start, ripping 40 home runs with MLB’s top OPS (.839). Then came the 5-15 plunge, when the Yankees struggled to reach the warning track (21 homers) with an OPS that dipped to .651 and a .203 batting average that ranked 28th overall.
Again, no discernible trends, other than maybe too much reliance on the disappearing long ball. Just the offense suddenly vanishing, and it returned just as abruptly to key the 10-0 run that followed (1.029 OPS, .307 BA, 29 HRs). The alarming thing about that winning streak, however, is it failed to act as a sufficient market correction. Rather than stabilize the Yankees through the final September stretch, they rolled right back off the cliff again.
Despite the returns of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees limped to a 2-6 finish, and headed into Sunday’s finale with a subpar offense that again slid to the middle of the pack (.690 OPS, .234 BA, four HRs). Boone, always fearful of load management, made sure to rotate his fragile sluggers. But other than LeMahieu and Luke Voit, whose 22 homers led the majors, it was tough for the manager to determine who the most valuable pieces were to protect. The rest of the lineup hadn’t done much lately.
Also troubling was the Yankees’ pathological disregard for defense. During the last week, they twice made four errors in a game, and the second time — which led to Friday’s loss to the Marlins — kicked away any shot of the Yankees’ hosting the wild-card round. For the season, they had 47 errors, the most in the majors, which is worrisome heading into a three-game series.
"We’ve had a week where we haven’t played our best baseball, where we struggled a little bit," Boone said. "But I know what we’re capable of, our guys know what we’re capable of, and opportunity knocks right now. We’ve got an amazing opportunity.
"We hold the bat, we hold the ball, we hold the pen — we can write the story right now. We don’t need anyone’s help and that’s exciting, especially when you’re walking in with the group of guys that we have."
On paper, Boone has every reason to be confident. The names suggest these Yankees should be able to handle anyone, even the Rays, despite going 2-8 against the No. 1 seed in a rivalry that is getting more feisty with each subsequent meeting. And the playoffs mean a fresh start, right? We can throw out the fact that Judge batted .194 (7-for-36) without a homer in 10 games since returning from a calf strain? And Stanton, who sat Sunday, hit .115 (3-for-26) with 13 Ks after a four-hit day on Sept. 17? We’re long past the point of including Gary Sanchez in these discussions.
"It’s not always the best team that wins the World Series," Brett Gardner said. "It’s the team that plays the best in October, so hopefully that’s going to be us. Obviously, we’ve played some baseball here recently that we’d like to forget. Just get on that plane today, turn the page."
As Gardner spoke, he didn’t know yet if the Yankees were heading to Chicago or to Cleveland. As it turned out, the destination is Progressive Field, where the shoo-in Cy Young winner Shane Bieber will be waiting in Game 1.
We expect Gerrit Cole to pitch like a $324-million ace Tuesday. How the rest of the Yankees play is anyone’s guess.
Yankees streaks by the numbers (excluding Sunday)
7/23 - 8/17 ... record 16-6 ... .839 OPS (rank 1st) ... .263 BA (3) .... 40 HR (T2)
8/18 - 9/8 ...... 5-15 ... .651 OPS (28) ........ .203 BA (28) ..... 21 HR (21)
9/9 - 9/19 ..... 10-0 ..... 1.029 OPS (1) ....... .307 BA (1) ....... 29 HR (1)
9/20 - 9/26 .... 2-5 ....... .690 OPS (18) ....... .234 BA (17) ..... 4 HR (28).