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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees' patchwork lineup stumbles against Seattle's Yusei Kikuchi

Clint Frazier of the Yankees reacts after striking

Clint Frazier of the Yankees reacts after striking out to end the sixth inning against the Mariners at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It’s a question we keep coming back to with these Yankees, in trying to determine what’s real and what’s not. Is this a season that’s going to be defined by the players on the field at the moment? Or the ones that aren’t?

In a fitting coincidence, Wednesday’s starting pitcher for the Mariners, Japanese rookie Yusei Kikuchi, faced another of the Yankees’ depth options, Jonathan Loaisiga. As a free agent this winter, Kikuchi was on Brian Cashman’s list of potential rotation upgrades, but the GM chose to bring back CC Sabathia, trade for the controllable James Paxton and give J.A. Happ a two-year, $34-million deal.

Cashman picked the known major-league commodities over the leap of faith with Kikuchi, and in time, he could be prove, proved, proving correct. It’s just funny now — weird, not ha-ha funny — that the Yankees have been forced to rely on a bunch of youngsters, journeymen and castoffs rather than the shiny $225-million roster they constructed during the offseason.

We’ll get back to them in a second. As for Kikuchi, he signed a four-year, $56-million contract with Seattle, and pitched like he was worth every penny in holding the Yankees to three hits and one run over 7 2/3 innings in the Mariners’ 10-1 victory. Into the sixth, it looked like Kikuchi might follow up Oakland’s Mike Fiers with a no-hit bid of his own before Mike Tauchman’s one-out double blooped over the head of third baseman Ryon Healy.

And despite the YES broadcast showing a suspicious substance under Kikuchi’s visor, the Yankees didn’t blame their futility on pine tar. Teams are extremely reluctant to call each other out on such things since it’s a widespread practice for pitchers to use it — discreetly — for a better grip.

“I don’t think that had anything to do with it,” Cameron Maybin said.

Austin Romine added, “He had stuff on his hat?”

As for the Michael Pineda incident, back in 2014, he was a multiple offender and had the substance slathered on his neck, leaving the Red Sox no choice but to ring him up at Fenway. Kikuchi wasn’t so obvious, and the only positive takeaway the Yankees had from the night was Luke Voit’s sacrifice fly insuring they would not be shut out for the 118th consecutive game, the longest active streak in the majors.

That’s a remarkable accomplishment in itself, considering that Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks remain on the injured list, with Miguel Andujar only recently returned to active duty. Somehow, the pinstriped replacements have not only kept the Yankees afloat, but propelled them to six games over .500 (21-15) despite Wednesday’s loss.

They did get a scare, however, when Gio Urshela had to exit after fouling a ball off his left knee in the seventh inning. Fortunately, X-rays were negative and it was nothing more serious than a contusion, according to their initial diagnosis. 

For the series finale, Boone sat Gary Sanchez (needed the breather) in going with the eight-righty attack, which represented the Yankees’ 34th different lineup through 36 games. That club’s health crisis has made a regular of Tauchman, introduced us to Gio Urshela and Thairo Estrada, and welcomed Cameron Maybin over from the Indians last weekend. Late Wednesday night, the Scranton Times-Tribune reported that reliever Nestor Cortes Jr. was headed to the Bronx, which would make him the 36th player used by the Yankees this season. 

The fact that Clint Frazier is an everyday corner outfielder and LeMahieu went from $24-million utility man to starting second baseman doesn’t even faze us anymore. Neither does Domingo German as the rotation’s ace, or Joe Harvey pitching high-leverage innings rather than Chad Green, who’s trying to get his groove back down at Triple-A Scranton.

Before Kikuchi’s gem, the Yankees had won 13 of their last 17 games, the best record in the majors during that stretch. Is that sustainable with this crew? We have our doubts, as Kikuchi reinforced Wednesday. But Boone’s subs have done enough to convince us they’ll do more than survive before the first-rate Yankees return, and there’s a structure in place to keep the supply chain productive.

“I think the organization — Brian [Cashman], the Steinbrenner family on down — have done a really good job of building depth and identifying the right people to go after when we are in need of certain things,” Boone said. “We’ve had a lot of good players waiting in the wings to step in. And to their credit, they’ve come in, stepped in, performed, and really not been overwhelmed.”

Except for Wednesday night, when Kikuchi did the overwhelming.

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