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Yankees stay focused on World Series path as shortened 2020 season begins

New York Yankees' pitcher Gerrit Cole throwing in

New York Yankees' pitcher Gerrit Cole throwing in the bullpen during spring training on Feb. 16, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Expressions of hesitation and outright concern from players — from names big and small — have been the norm since Major League Baseball rebooted spring training in early July.

As has the slow but steady trickle of players simply choosing to opt out of the upcoming 60-game season because of concerns for themselves and/or their families about the still-unchecked coronavirus.

The Yankees have been an exception.

Indeed, when it has come to public utterances about the season, which is scheduled to start for the Yankees on Thursday in Washington against the defending champion Nationals, players have been consistently on-message.

The message? If there’s going to be a season and they’re going to crown a champion, then we’re going to go after it. Hard.

Worries about testing or protocols? At most, acknowledge them to the media, but otherwise, keep specific concerns to yourself. There’s room for one singular focus: winning.

Opt-outs? Hasn’t happened yet with the Yankees, and it isn’t expected to happen.

“It’s a very personal decision for people,” Aaron Boone said. “And I know we’ll certainly be respectful of that. I don’t necessarily expect anyone for us [to opt out], but if a situation does occur where somebody feels like they need to, we’ll be supportive of that as an organization.”

On Day 1 of Spring Training II for the Yankees, their collective approach was apparent.

“I am personally 100% committed,” said outfielder Brett Gardner, a Yankee since 2005, when he was drafted in the third round. “I don’t think that I would be here if I wasn’t. Obviously, that’s a conversation that I’ve had with my wife and with my family over the last few weeks and months through all this, and I think that, obviously, me being here kind of speaks for itself, and that I’m committed to doing everything I can and doing my part and try to make this work.”

Gardner, 36, has two small children. One of his closest friends on the team is Aaron Judge, 28, who also indicated that not playing was never a consideration.

“There’s obviously a risk, of anything,” said Judge, who is single. “Just walking outside, there’s a risk; leaving your apartment, there’s a risk. There’s risk everywhere, but I love this game and I love the team that we’ve got here and the opportunity we have here.” 

Of the extensive protocols — no spitting, wearing masks, social distancing, etc. — Judge said that behind the scenes, a common topic is the importance of adhering to them.

“That’s what we kind of talked about as a team and we talked with each other, just hammering in being accountable for each other,” he said. “Watching out for each other. Making sure you’re washing your hands, making sure you wear your mask, making sure you’re doing the things so that everybody stays healthy and stays on the field.”

And if the Yankees manage to do so, they’re very much a favorite (along with the Dodgers) to win the World Series, just as they were for a full 162-game season. That is in large part because of the signing of ace righthander Gerrit Cole last winter to a record nine-year, $324 million contract but also because of what the lengthy delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic allowed to happen: key Yankees such as Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and James Paxton had an opportunity to get healthy.

“We liked our chances in February not coming out of the gate 100% healthy,’’ Cole said, “so I gotta say that we really like our chances coming out of the gate 100% healthy.”

 

There is a lot to like. Cole heading what appears to be a good-with-a-chance-to-be-great rotation leads the list, but there’s also one of the deepest bullpens in the sport, a long and potent lineup, quality organizational depth for when the inevitable injuries — or positive COVID-19 cases — hit, and flexibility on the bench.

It’s not that the Yankees haven’t been touched by COVID-19. Luis Cessa and DJ LeMahieu tested positive before camp and Aroldis Chapman tested positive a few days into it (LeMahieu missed the first two weeks before being cleared to report).

It’s just that as a team, it’s not something they’re obsessing about.

And in this season that will be unlike any other, Boone said that could help the Yankees, to use a favorite phrase of the manager’s, “win along the margins.”

“When you’re in the grind of the season and it’s challenging and it’s tough and you’re going through the monotony of all the protocols you’ve got to go through every day, who stays on top of that and handles that the best? I think there’s a competitive advantage to be gained there,” Boone said when spring training resumed.

“Where there’s no fans in the stands and you’re getting used to how to find that gear or how to find that energy in a situation that you’re not used to, I think there’s a competitive advantage to gain that we have to take advantage of.” 

3 things to watch with the Yankees

1. Gerrit Cole, Gerrit Cole, Gerrit Cole

Will the ace righthander, known for his rigid routine and obsessive attention to detail, be thrown off in any way by the nearly four-month hiatus caused by COVID-19? The dominance Cole showed in intrasquad games during the second spring training – which included him hitting 99 mph on the gun – suggested he was not, but it’s still worth watching as the season begins to unfold.

2. Gleyber readjusting

Gleyber Torres returns to his natural position, shortstop, after the Yankees showed no interest in retaining Didi Gregorius, who signed with the Phillies. Torres, 23, got off to a slow start there in the spring, committing five errors in the first 10 Grapefruit League games, but the Yankees saw that as nothing more than an early spring fielding slump and are not concerned.

3. Health

Well, duh. This is the case for every team, not just the Yankees. Many in the sport believe the team having the least amount of injuries, positive COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs, will ultimately win the title. Based on the three weeks of rebooted spring training, it’s a hard point to argue.

BEATMAN’S PREDICTION: 36-24

First in AL East

This team was among the favorites back before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, and the Yankees remain that for the upcoming 60-game season. Talent is talent and, barring the unforeseen with injuries and/or a club-wide coronavirus outbreak, there’s no reason to expect anything short of a second straight AL East title.

Erik Boland has covered the Yankees for Newsday since 2009.

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