BALTIMORE — What’s better than being a first-place team? The Yankees are going to find out soon enough, when a few of their rehabbing stars begin to trickle back from Tampa, and upgrade these Backup Bombers into something more like the $225-million juggernaut we remember.
Forgive us for even asking. But can you really improve on what the Yankees are doing right now on a nightly basis, and did again Monday at Camden Yards, where they rallied from five runs down to topple the charitable Orioles, 10-7?
Whatever you want to credit: clubhouse chemistry, organizational sorcery, dumb luck. These Yankees, patched up by imported temps and minor league subs, are winning games at a clip that shouldn’t happen for a club that has coped with more than a dozen players on the injured list for most of this season.
The Yankees rallied to stun the formerly first-place Rays on Sunday, then followed that up by taking advantage of the hapless Orioles. If O’s catcher Pedro Severino doesn’t whiff on Luke Voit’s foul-pop with two outs in the ninth — it dropped, untouched, roughly eight feet from home plate — then Gary Sanchez never gets the chance to hammer the game-winning, three-run homer.
But the Yankees aren’t wasting these opportunities, either. And when J.A. Happ put them in that 6-1 hole, by the fourth inning, they didn’t flinch.
“Obviously, they’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Aaron Boone said. “They’re confident because they believe in what they’re doing.”
You win enough, and you didn’t think you can lose, which is odd considering that the Yankees were dropping players faster than games back in early April. Yet in another week or two, this roster will go through another metamorphosis, returning Giancarlo Stanton to the outfield rotation and Didi Gregorius to shortstop.
That also means Gleyber Torres goes back to second base, and with D.J. LeMaheiu then needing reps at third, that probably results in seeing less of Gio Urshela. Torres went deep twice for his third multi-homer game this season, all of them against Baltimore. Eight of his 10 home runs this year happen to be against the Birds, too.
“We always compete,” Torre said. “We always fight.”
The Yankees also rehab quite a bit, and Monday marked the first time Gregorius and Stanton appeared in games down in Tampa. Gregorius made his extended-spring debut, and his reconstructed left elbow was feeling so springy that he overthrew first base. Stanton homered for the Class A Tampa Tarpons at Steinbrenner Field, blasting one off the batter’s eye in centerfield, a positive sign in his comeback from biceps/shoulder issues.
Aaron Judge played catch and did some running before Monday’s game, but he’s too far away to start a countdown clock. Not that it seems to matter all that much, when you realize how little everyone’s absence has impacted this team’s mission statement.
“It’s surprising, but you expect it,” CC Sabathia said. “If that makes sense.”
The Yankees feel like they’re supposed to be in first place. How they arrived there this season, however, defies the usual logic. And who could have anticipated that Sabathia and Gardner — two graybeard vets that returned as character signings -- would be key players in that revival?
“What we’ve dealt with, and still been able to play well, is rare and shocking to me,” Sabathia said. “Hopefully we can keep it going.”
It’s going. The Yankees are on a 21-7 run, no other team has been hotter. Despite missing three potential MVP candidates, and the Rookie of the Year runner-up, the Yankees ranked fifth in the American League in both OPS (. 765) and home runs (67).
Overall, the pitching staff placed fourth in both ERA (3.67) and K/9 ratio (9.64) despite the prolonged absence of James Paxton and the complete disappearance of Luis Severino, who won’t be back until after the All-Star break because of a lat muscle strain. Add it all up, and the depleted Yankees sported a plus-48 run differential, also good enough for fourth in the AL.
As strange as it sounds, the Yankees have managed to mine a few positives from the misfortune of a dozen or more players on the injury list, becoming a deeper, stronger team as a result. They’ve already proven that, and it’s still only May.
“Experience is a very valuable thing to have,” Boone said before Monday’s win. “I think that leads to the confidence and knowing that they can not only play here but thrive here, so we’ve needed every bit of it. Hopefully we’ll benefit from that as the season unfolds and then down the stretch.”
For now, they’ll have to settle for first place.