BOSTON - The Yankees were smart to put aside any thoughts of retaliation in the wake of Wednesday night’s benches-clearing melee at Fenway Park. As Aaron Boone stressed, the focus in the series finale was back on winning games, not exacting revenge for Tyler Austin’s sore elbow.
The only problem with that strategy? The Yankees might be better at fighting than baseball at the moment. With everyone hypersensitive to malicious purpose pitches Thursday night, Boone’s crew forgot what to do with ones over the plate as Rick Porcello carried a no-hitter through a 45-minute rain delay and into the seventh inning.
Aaron Judge put an end to that humbling stretch by leading off the seventh with a double to the centerfield triangle, but it was only a face-saving gesture. After the Yankees’ 6-3 loss, the final tally for the season’s first Fenway series was two losses, a few fines and a five-game suspension for Austin (now under appeal).
No worries, though. Despite their 6-7 stumble out of the gate, the Yankees are only two games back in the wild card. Totally manageable, right?
We kid, obviously. But what the heck is going on with this team? In his pitiful three-inning stint, Sonny Gray (6.92 ERA) was doomed by a fatal combination of poor pitch execution and shoddy defense (the latter is becoming an April hallmark of the Yankees). Their rotation has a 4.86 ERA, which ranks 25th, and was torched by the Sox, who outscored the Yankees 27-14 in the series.
“We’ll turn the page,” Boone said.
For what it’s worth, the Yankees were able to move beyond Wednesday’s fisticuffs. Although Yawkey Way was on high alert, two players were plunked. Gray spurred warnings to both teams in the first inning when he nailed Hanley Ramirez on the right wrist with a fastball that wasn’t far off the plate. Ramirez even tried to swing at it, but the injury knocked him from the game.
Later, Porcello lost his early bid for perfection by hitting Giancarlo Stanton on the left elbow with two outs in the fourth. Given the circumstances, this obviously was another innocent mistake.
But after another 24 hours to study our well-worn copy of baseball’s unwritten rules, the chapters dealing with Austin’s slide and Joe Kelly’s elbow-seeking fastball remained as ambiguous as they were late Wednesday, when everybody tried to attach blame for the twin fracases.
That depended on which clubhouse you resided in, with the Yankees maintaining that Austin had done nothing wrong and the Red Sox insisting he got what he deserved (in coded language, obviously). Which left Major League Baseball to administer justice before the series finale — sticking Kelly with a six-game suspension and Austin with five.
The swift penalties were a smart move, perhaps done with the hope it could prevent further revenge-motivated behavior. In MLB’s view, Kelly “intentionally” threw at Austin — hence the extra game — and Austin was penalized for charging Kelly and for his role in the fight.
Both immediately appealed their suspensions and are likely to shave a game or two off them. Regardless, the Yankees still were puzzled by what they believed was an “overreaction” by the Red Sox and felt like victims in the whole ugly mess.
“I have no qualms with anything that happened on our side,” Brian Cashman said. “It’s not something we caused. It’s not something we created. We just got dragged into it.”
Before Thursday’s game, Austin seemed fine, and his face was clear despite absorbing a few glancing blows from Kelly. The only lingering dust-up was between Sox manager Alex Cora and Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin, who traded barbs about the war of words between the dugouts.
Still, Boone was confident that the bad blood would cool down by Thursday. The reason?
“Professionalism,” he said. “You have to protect your own, but at the end of the day, the biggest thing is to win games.”
The Yankees would like to be doing more of that, and as soon as possible. Fighting the Red Sox was fine for a night. Catching them, however, remains the No. 1 priority.