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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

It's beginning to get late early for floundering Yankees

Yankees players, coaches and manager Aaron Boone look

Yankees players, coaches and manager Aaron Boone look on from the dugout during the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays in an MLB baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

What if the 2021 Yankees really aren’t that great?

It’s probably a question that’s crossed a few minds by now, and definitely after a fourth straight loss Saturday, this time by the count of 6-3 to the Rays.

When it comes to Tampa Bay, the result is always the same for the Yankees: a big, fat L. Only the final score tends to fluctuate. And the day after Aaron Boone chewed out his lifeless team in the clubhouse, he actually gave them credit for keeping it relatively close the next afternoon.

"We definitely played a much cleaner game," Boone said. "I felt like we were much more in the fight today, which is at least a good thing. But we don’t want moral victories right now."

 

Good. Because for a second there, it sounded as if he did.

But that’s just Boone’s nature. He’s a relentlessly positive guy, and despite Gerrit Cole’s assertion that Boone lit into them after Friday night’s three-error embarrassment, I still have a hard time picturing that.

Shame on the Yankees for requiring even a private scolding. This is not a roster full of rookies. General manager Brian Cashman chose to run it back with this same group in ’21 because he believed it was capable of going deeper into October after getting KO’d by the Rays in last year’s Division Series.

But from what we’ve witnessed, just qualifying for the playoffs — with the field reverting back to five — might not be the automatic bid we assumed a few weeks ago. Saturday’s loss dropped the Yankees to 5-9 for the first time since 2016, a season they finished 84-78.

Impossible? Hardly. What were the odds the Yankees would be in this spot after 14 games? You’d think microscopic. When Judge was asked the probability of such an April, he replied, "Pretty low." And yet here we are.

"You never expect to go out there and start like this," said Judge, who delivered an RBI double in the seventh inning of the too-little, too-late variety. "But that’s the thing about baseball. Anything can happen at any moment."

What’s been happening for the Yankees lately is overwhelmingly bad, down to the granular level, where the Rays have excelled in improving to 17-5 (including playoffs) against their big-spending Bronx pals dating to 2019.

One such example took place in the seventh, when Gleyber Torres — already under fire for his suspect play at shortstop — failed to glove an on-time throw from Kyle Higashioka to nail Manuel Margot stealing second.

Margot should have been erased, with the subsequent flyout ending the inning. Instead, Joey Wendle got to the plate and smacked a two-run homer off Jonathan Loaisiga, bumping the score to 5-1 and ultimately putting the game out of reach.

That’s the kind of stuff that happens to bad teams. Little mistakes that decide games. Over and over again.

"We’re not panicked," said Jordan Montgomery, who gave up only two hits but was charged with four runs, thanks in part to a pair of homers. "We’ve got a lot of games left and we believe in ourselves and how talented we can be."

Talented, sure. But the belief outside that clubhouse, among everyone that pegged the Yankees as the American League rep for the World Series, is flickering.

We knew Luke Voit was important. We just didn’t think he was the glue holding this whole pinstriped operation together, because the offensive production has been dismal in his absence.

Through 14 games, the Yankees rank 27th in OPS (.655), are tied for 24th in batting average (.217) and have scored as many runs (53) as the Tigers, good enough for 23rd overall. They’re also hitting .229 with runners in scoring position, which ranks 20th, and have 15 home runs — barely doubling the output of Atlanta's Ronald Acuna Jr., who already has crushed seven by himself.

"We’re usually getting two or three homers a game and driving some guys in," Judge said. "We’ve been a team that’s really relied on that in the past. But I think we’ve just got to get guys going. I keep going back to the quality at-bats. The more pitches we can see, the more we can just stick our nose in there and grind it out, eventually those homers, those doubles, those extra-base hits when you really need them with guys on base are going to come."

The good news? After Sunday, the Yankees won’t see the Rays again until May 11 at Tropicana Field, so there exists the possibility of winning a few games before then. Also, Cole will return to the mound for the series finale, so at least they will have the pitching edge and shouldn’t have the extra anxiety of any deep early holes.

Presumably, of course. We can’t make any more assumptions about these Yankees, who no longer get the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes you are what the record says you are, and the Yankees have looked every bit like the team with the worst record in the American League.

"We’ve got to start to play better, obviously," Boone said.

The Yankees don’t need their manager to tell them that. We’re just wondering what the heck they’re waiting for.

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