Trying to salvage this season has the Yankees fighting a two-front war. On one side is the ultra-competitive AL East, a division where even the Orioles are giving them trouble. On the other is COVID-19.
Getting to the playoffs already was going to be hard enough. Before Tuesday night’s game, the Yankees had a 48.0% chance of reaching the postseason, according to FanGraphs. Basically a coin flip.
But how can Aaron Boone & Co. realistically expect to gain any ground when COVID keeps subtracting their best players? As soon as the rotation wrapped a fantastic July — leading the AL in a number of categories — the Yankees learned that Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery tested positive, knocking them out for the next 10 days.
Their quick fix to replace Cole for Tuesday was calling up Luis Gil to make his major-league debut after a total of eight career starts (5.64 ERA) at the Triple-A level. As for Montgomery’s spot, that remains up in the air, and don’t forget the Yankees just lost Domingo German to a rotator-cuff strain as well.
"We’re truly day by day right now, hour by hour," Boone said before Tuesday night’s game against the Orioles. "We’ll see where the week and the games take us ... It’s frustrating. But it’s also what we and many people in the world have had to deal with in every walk of life. You just handle it and deal with it the best you can.
"We’ve been through some of these challenges — even recently — and gotten through them. That’s what we’ll expect to do again."
Those expectations were met, for one night at least, in Tuesday night’s 13-1 rout of the Orioles. Gil was a revelation, allowing four hits with six Ks over six scoreless innings, and Commack’s own Stephen Ridings -- also making his MLB debut -- struck out the side in the seventh. Ridings' first pitch in pinstripes was 101 mph; his final one Tuesday night was a tight swing-and-miss 86 slider.
The Yankees use plenty more of these outstanding cameos after their third COVID outbreak of the season, and second in a little over two weeks. Once again, it apparently involves some breakthrough infections, as GM Brian Cashman said "vaccinations were in play" for both Cole and Montgomery during his interview Tuesday with WFAN.
Cashman declined to go into any details regarding the health of either player, other than to emphasize the vaccine’s ability to prevent serious illness from COVID-19. The Yankees are among the 23 teams (out of 30) to reach the 85% threshold for vaccinations this season, but still continue to have periodic outbreaks.
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Yankees had six players on the COVID injured list, with Aaron Judge, Kyle Higashioka and Gio Urshela testing positive upon their return to the team. That forced the postponement of the second-half opener against the Red Sox, but they still won four of five during the abbreviated homestand, then went 6-4 on a 10-game road trip through Boston, Tampa Bay and Miami — despite averaging only 3.10 runs during that three-city jaunt.
The rotation had been the savior, especially with Jameson Taillon being named Pitcher of the Month for July, and the Yankees expected a big homecoming Monday night with the Bronx debuts of Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo. What they got instead was a disaster, and the Yankees were looking to regroup Tuesday behind an emergency starter in Gil while keeping their fingers crossed for no new COVID positives.
As of Tuesday’s first pitch, the coast was clear. But Boone said he didn’t find out about Cole’s positive Monday until the second inning of that night’s game — the ace was tested because he had symptoms — and Cashman didn’t reveal Montgomery’s status until Tuesday afternoon’s WFAN spot.
Just when it seemed like everyone was getting a handle on COVID-19, the super-contagious Delta variant is now wreaking havoc — even among the vaccinated population — and the Yankees are again holding their breath after the loss of their $324 million ace. Losing Cole and Montgomery, who were tied for most starts (21) on the staff, creates a gaping hole that can’t be patched. Just like Judge and Urshela before them. Unlike some hurdles, the Yankees’ experience rolling with these sudden COVID haymakers doesn’t help going forward.
"I think it’s tougher," Taillon said. "We’re missing two of our best guys. There’s nothing we can do to get them back for a little while, so we have to make do. Hopefully we can put up some runs and get some zeros."
And if at all possible, maybe find a way to stop getting COVID-19.