As Giancarlo Stanton preps for only the second October of his decade-long career, and a mountain of pressure settling on his broad shoulders, here’s a month-by-month breakdown of how he arrived at this Division Series against the Twins.
Three games in March.
Six games in June.
Nine games in September.
So the highest-paid Yankee, earning $26 million this season and the only one with an MVP trophy, is making his second trip to the playoffs after playing a grand total of 18 games. If you believe that injury-related bad luck is contagious, then Stanton was the Yankees’ Patient Zero, as he was sidelined by a series of afflictions that included a torn left biceps, a sprained left shoulder, some sort of calf ailment and a sprained right knee.
When healthy, Stanton possesses an intimidation factor second to none, capable of superhuman exit velos and eye-popping distance. Now that he’s back, Stanton appears functional, and his 440-foot blast Saturday in Texas showed his power has been restored.
It’s everything else that we’re wondering about, and whether or not Stanton has sufficiently knocked off enough rust to be a factor in this postseason. Since his Sept. 18 return from the IL, Stanton has made 34 plate appearances, hitting .286 (8-for-28) with two doubles and two homers.
By evaluation standards, that’s a small sample size, and the Yankees protected Stanton by playing him in leftfield for just five games. Stanton will need to be out there for this postseason -- with Edwin Encarnacion at DH -- so the stability of his right knee is another reason for the Yankees to keep their fingers crossed, on top of Encarnacion’s oblique and Gary Sanchez’s groin.
As far as preparation goes, Stanton’s time is up. Other than Wednesday’s round of BP, and Thursday’s pre-series workout, Stanton is entering this October under the most pressure he’s ever faced, at something less than optimal condition.
“Is it perfect? No,” Aaron Boone said before Wednesday’s workout at Yankee Stadium. “You’d like to have a season and going in with a ton of at-bats. But to be able to get out there the final 10 days of the season or so, I think was really valuable.”
Stanton was unavailable Wednesday (and planned to speak Thursday) but he’s been optimistic about the uphill climb he’s faced. For most of the second half, it seemed like Stanton wouldn’t be back for the playoffs, and there was even some question if the Yankees wanted him for October after winning 103 games mostly with the $325-million slugger on the IL.
But the season-ending calf injury to Mike Tauchman, along with the nagging health issues of Encarnacion and Sanchez, quickly turned Stanton into a necessity. For all the talk of the Yankees adjusting to life without Stanton, and maintaining a lineup that could win in his absence, he’s right in the middle of it again, as long as his knee holds up this month.
“I feel like he’s in a pretty good place,” Boone said. “Is it perfect? No. But I feel good about what he was able to do and I think it went about as well as we could have hoped, considering where we were say a month ago.”
Will the Bronx crowd take all that into account and give Stanton more leeway this year? This was a reigning MVP who was booed in his first game in pinstripes last season, and continued to hear jeers after shaky at-bats. Stanton also had a terrible first October. He homered in the wild-card victory over the A’s, with the Yankees already comfortably ahead, 6-2, in the eighth inning, then batted .222 (4-for-18) with four singles in the four-game loss to the Red Sox in the Division Series.
The lasting image? Stanton whiffing badly against a wobbly Craig Kimbrel during the Yankees’ two-run rally in the ninth inning of Game 4. Chasing sliders has been Stanton’s kryptonite, and Kimbrel got him to bite on a wild bender that looked destined for the on-deck circle.
Stanton’s limited playing time this season isn’t going to help his confidence at the plate, but he did work on shortening his swing and “tightening up his zone” over the final week in an effort to stay more selective.
“It’s never easy out there,” Stanton said last weekend in Texas. “It’s good to have seen what they could do without me.”
Starting Friday, Stanton can change the narrative, and the Yankees are anxious for him to do just that. But is a less-than-perfect Stanton up to the task?