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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees can take a page out of James Paxton's playbook and get real about poor start to season

Paxton has consulted a sports psychologist for these very real issues, brought on by an 8.68 ERA in his two previous starts.

Yankees starting pitcher James Paxton motions to teammates

Yankees starting pitcher James Paxton motions to teammates after forcing Orioles' Renato Nunez to ground out into a double play to end the top of the fourth inning on March 30, 2019, at Yankee Stadium. Photo Credit: AP/Julie Jacobson

The most honest words spoken Sunday by a Yankee came hours before they dropped yet another series, this time by the score of 5-2 to the White Sox.

It happened when James Paxton, one of the pitchers acquired to prevent this April misery, went on record in describing his own early struggles with self-doubt and facing the hurdles of the Bronx stage for the first time. Paxton has consulted a sports psychologist for these very real issues, brought on by an 8.68 ERA in his two previous starts.

“I’ve talked to guys and I think it can be challenging coming to New York as a new player and learning how to handle that mentally,” Paxton said.  “And I’ve been working on that, talking to people, talking to teammates, trying to get some advice on how to handle that the best way.”

Kudos to Paxton for recognizing the potential problem and then doing what he can to deal with it. He also had no qualms about discussing the matter. Paxton understands there is a lot riding on his performance here and the responsibility that comes with being a front-line starter for a team many considered to be a World Series contender.

“I think I’ve been trying to do too much, trying to be better than I am,” Paxton said, “and I just need to realize that I’m good enough how I am, or who I was in Seattle.”

The Yankees could use a few more Paxtons right around now, another voice or two to express a glaring need for accountability. Because what we’re getting instead is the same auto-responses as if we were emailing the Yankees while they were on vacation.

Obviously, this can’t be the same team after it’s been gutted by having a dozen players on the injured list. Not when 33 percent of their lineup consists of Gio Urshela, Kyle Higashioka and Mike Tauchman, as it did Sunday. Those spots are supposed to be filled by Miguel Andujar, Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton, so the talent drain is not something that can be plugged at the moment.

But the remaining bodies, the Yankees who are still upright, need to look in the mirror, as Paxton clearly has been doing. And it wouldn’t hurt for the manager to at least acknowledge how poorly his team has been playing, just to confirm to the rest of us that he’s watching the same games.

We know that Aaron Boone, and many of his next-gen managing colleagues, were hired to boost the egos in the clubhouse, not admonish them. It’s how teams operate these days, and if that’s the way these players are wired, we can’t necessarily fault them for that. But it’s impossible to look at these Yankees and truthfully say they’re in a “good place,” as Boone said Sunday after they fell to 6-9, already 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Rays.

Sunday at Yankee Stadium didn’t feel like a good place. Masahiro Tanaka, who had been the one consistently solid player in pinstripes, teed up a fourth-inning grand slam to Tim Anderson. The Yankees’ lineup virtually disappeared after that as Carlos Rodon retired his final 11 batters. They had only one hit in the last six innings.  Otherwise, crickets. This is a positive thing?

“I really do think we’re in a sound place as far as our focus, our energy, our expectation when we walk through those doors,” Boone said. “Obviously dealing with some adversity right now, which is part of it, part of the big league season. You’ve got to navigate that. You’ve got to grind through that and you’ve got to grind through the tough times.

“But as far as where we are in the mindset, in our intent and our focus, I think we’re fine.”

Right. Perfectly fine. About as fine as Luis Severino’s right shoulder or Aaron Hicks’ back or any other of those dozen injuries. They’ve all been in good places. Let’s hope none of us ever have the misfortune of experiencing Boone’s definition of bad. 

“I would say we’re a little frustrated,” said Luke Voit, who drove in Sunday’s first run with a two-out double in the first inning but is hitting .204. “It’s frustrating to lose two of three to a team we should probably beat.”

But those teams no longer exist. The Yankees can’t say they should beat anyone, because they’re losing to everyone. Banged up or not, they’re a below-.500 club playing bad baseball right now.

Just be honest about that.

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