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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees approach end of spring with healthy attitude

Yankees pitcher Justin Wilson throws in the top

Yankees pitcher Justin Wilson throws in the top of the seventh inning against the Pirates at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., on March 13. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Eight days to go.

Doesn’t seem that long. Not after spending the past five weeks in Florida. But this final dash to the April 1 finish line is the scariest part of the race, as the recovery window for Opening Day has just about closed.

The Yankees, to date, have been relatively lucky, especially when you consider the health-related devastation of the previous two years. But things can go sideways quickly and without warning. Exhibit A was Justin Wilson during Monday night’s game at Steinbrenner Field.

Exhibit B was just down the road in Dunedin, where the Blue Jays -- arguably the greatest AL East threat to the Yankees -- discovered Tuesday their closer Kirby Yates would likely undergo his second TJ surgery and be lost for the season. Oh, and George Springer -- their new $150-million centerfielder -- had suffered a Grade 2 oblique strain.

As for Wilson, he was signed this offseason, along with sidearmer Darren O’Day, to help fill the void left by the salary-dump trade of Adam Ottavino to the Red Sox. But Wilson’s shaky spring went from bad to worse Monday when he abruptly signaled to the dugout after throwing a pitch.

The only red flag had been a dip in velocity, but Wilson also shook his left hand to the side before using it to summon manager Aaron Boone and the trainer to the mound. The team’s official explanation was tightness in his left shoulder with an MRI scheduled for Tuesday. Boone described Wilson’s issue as a problem "getting loose."

In the big picture, Wilson’s injury means the Yankees are down a second lefthanded reliever after the loss of Zack Britton earlier this month due to surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow. The severity of Wilson’s injury still was unclear Tuesday afternoon, but Britton is expected back at some point in June, a timeline that suggests the Yankees dodged a bullet with that diagnosis.

Those two relievers, however, weren’t even considered among the high-risk candidates on the roster. That’s a list that includes almost everyone else -- but primarily Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and the pair of pitchers coming back from significant injuries: Corey Kluber (shoulder) and Jameson Taillon (TJ surgery).

Judge has been steering clear of walls the spring and Stanton hasn’t spent a minute in the outfield grass during the Grapefruit League season. The others have been going about their usual business, and the result, so far, has been a mostly intact roster.

"I think the more of our guys we have healthy, obviously the more confident we are, the better team we run out there," Brett Gardner said. "On paper, the last few years we've looked really, really good coming into the season. We've obviously had some injuries we've had to deal with and hopefully this year won't be quite so many."

For the Yankees, "on paper" has been very different from Feb. 1 to April 1 in past years. Not to mention the snowballing injury count once the season gets underway. But how much of that has to be chalked up to bad luck? Or are the Yankees just doing a better job at keeping their players healthy now?

It’s hard to say. They revamped their medical and conditioning staffs after the injury-riddled 2019 season, but still had a number of missteps that winter, including the questionable early diagnoses of Judge (fractured rib), James Paxton (disc repair) and Luis Severino (TJ surgery). This year, the Yankees didn’t show up with any lingering problems from the previous season, so at the very least that has to be considered progress.

But what’s the approach from here on out? Tell the starters to tread carefully with their remaining game assignments? Downshifting isn’t really possible at this level. When Clint Frazier crashed into a Lakeland wall earlier this month, Boone shrugged and said it was part of the game, to an extent. That stuff happens. Frazier stepped up his efforts to work on wall-awareness, but there’s no way to protect players from their jobs.

"I think you can be careful, and you can be smart," said Gardner, who turns 38 in August. "No matter what you do in the offseason or come in ready, you’re never really ready for spring training -- to play in games and stand in the outfield for long periods of time, things like that. You continue to be careful and be smart about it, but I definitely won't be scaling things back.

"Maybe not necessarily go out there and try to steal five bases the last week of camp but really push myself to make sure I’m as close to 100 percent as I can be. I feel like our guys have done a good job of maintaining a solid intensity, and being able to get through camp in a pretty healthy way."

Just over a week left before Gerrit Cole throws that first pitch in the Bronx. It can’t come fast enough for the Yankees.

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