Maybe the Cubs aren’t the best team the Yankees have played this season. We’d probably go with the Orioles. But they are the defending world champions, and that technically makes them the gold standard of early-season tests, especially at Wrigley Field.
So what are we to make of Joe Girardi’s crew sweeping the series during a windy North Side weekend in which the first-pitch temperature never touched 50 degrees?
Tossing aside the small sample-size disclaimer, the Yankees beat the Cubs in every way imaginable, capped by Sunday-night-into-Monday-morning’s crazy, seemingly endless 5-4 victory that required 18 innings to complete.
When the 6-hour, 5-minute marathon finally ended, capped by Chasen Shreve whiffing Kyle Hendricks — the third starting pitcher the Cubs used as a pinch hitter — the Yankees whooped and hollered on the twisting climb from the dugout to the clubhouse.
Those were the sounds of a team having too much fun right now. It didn’t matter that the Yankees’ fingers and toes were frozen from the mid-30s wind-chill. They don’t care where or whom they’re playing these days. They’re 20-9, and the outcome is usually in the Yankees’ favor.
“It’s a gritty performance by our guys,” Joe Girardi said a few minutes after the Yankees walked off the field at 2:14 a.m. EDT. “We’ve been playing well and it’s been contributions from everybody.”
For the weekend sweep at Wrigley, it began Friday with Brett Gardner’s three-run homer with the Yankees down to their last strike in the ninth, a shot that delivered a 3-2 win. The Yankees hammered the Cubs into submission the next night, 11-6. Then, in Sunday-Monday’s finale, they had to overcome Aroldis Chapman blowing a 4-1 lead in the ninth before rallying a whole nine innings later.
“I think this team has shown that it has a lot of character,” Chapman said through an interpreter. “The way the team is right now, it’s pretty much doing everything well.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon said plenty of flattering things about the Yankees before the series kicked off Friday, but most were uttered with an eye toward the future. After dropping the first two games, however, Maddon was asked to provide some new observations now that he had seen the Yankees up close.
“They’re playing as good as they can right now,” Maddon said. “And I mean that in a very complimentary way.”
In other words, the Yankees are red-lining at optimal performance levels, with a number of players going above and beyond the “back of their bubblegum cards,” as Maddon referred to those career statistics. Knowing that, he doubted that the Yankees’ current offensive output can be “sustainable” for more extended stretches, never mind for an entire season.
It’s a valid point. What the Yankees have been doing is a bit of an outlier. This is a team that played without Didi Gregorius for the opening month of the season and had Gary Sanchez for only a few games before Friday’s return. Regardless, through Saturday, the Yankees led the American League in runs scored (162), homers (47), batting average (.278), on-base percentage (.360) and slugging percentage (.475). Their 5.79 runs per game also was tops in the AL.
So how did this all happen? One big reason is Aaron Judge, who delivered a run-scoring triple Sunday night to give him 28 RBIs. But the Yankees also have benefited from a resurgence at the top of the order from Jacoby Ellsbury (.286/.356/.440) and Gardner (10-game hitting streak and five homers in his last eight games). Ellsbury hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning Sunday that should have iced the win.
“We do have some power in the lineup,” Girardi said, “and some on-base guys to put in front of them.”
The Yankees also have more running options when they can add Aaron Hicks. Maddon cited the Yankees’ team speed as something that impressed him this series, as well as the renaissance that his former player, Starlin Castro, is experiencing. Heading into the finale, he was batting .381 with six home runs and 19 RBIs, the sort of torrid pace that Maddon was talking about when he mentioned Yankees eventually cooling off some.
With a number of versatile hitters, Girardi can get creative. Chase Headley has batted anywhere from second to seventh. And in the past 10 days alone, the Yankees have staged two impressive comebacks, rallying from a 9-1 deficit to beat the Orioles, 14-11, and then coming through with Friday’s stunner.
Then there was their exhausting 18-inning victory, the Yankees’ fifth straight win, which got their closer off the hook.
“The clubhouse is unified,” Chapman said.
And more than anything, relentlessly successful.