New on Sports Illustrated: The Hobbled Yankees May Have Met Their Match

August 21, 2020 at 09:58AM

What transpired Thursday was a summation of all that has gone wrong for the Yankees over the last two weeks and a harbinger of how easily things can fall apart in a 60-game season.

This has been a bad week for the Yankees.

They’ve lost Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu and Zack Britton to the injured list within the past week, dropped five straight games to the Rays—including Thursday’s 10-5 defeat to conclude a three-game sweep at home—and fallen out of first place in the AL East.

As if that wasn’t enough, star shortstop Gleyber Torres left Thursday’s game in the third inning with left hamstring tightness and starting pitcher James Paxton faltered in the fifth frame with discomfort in his forearm and elbow. It is unknown how much time, if any, the two will miss.

What transpired Thursday was a summation of all that has gone wrong for the Yankees over the last two weeks—during which they also lost three of four in Tampa and placed Giancarlo Stanton on the injured list—and a harbinger of how easily things can fall apart for a World Series favorite in a 60-game season.

Of course, things could be far worse for New York than they are now. Between the two series against the Rays, the Yankees beat the Braves twice and took all three games against the Red Sox in the Bronx. Judge is expected to be activated from the injured list as soon as Saturday. Gary Sanchez is coming out of his rough offensive funk to start the season and is playing much better defense. Luke Voit has a 10-game hitting streak and a four-game home run streak, and he's batting .405 with six home runs during that span.

But the Yankees won’t have to worry about Boston or Atlanta to advance to their first World Series since 2009. If it wasn’t already, it’s clear now that their biggest threat this season is Tampa Bay. The Rays have the pitching to stifle the New York bats, especially if the Yankees are without a third of their starting lineup due to injury, and they have the depth on offense to pester the Yankees rotation and bullpen if they don’t have their best stuff and/or are not at full strength.

“It’s definitely a little frustrating to get thoroughly beaten like that,” said reliever Adam Ottavino, who allowed three of the five runs in the Tampa sixth. All four of the runs charged to Ottavino this year have come in the 2 2/3 innings (three games) he’s pitched against the Rays. They also are the only team to score earned runs off Britton, who leads the league with eight saves. (He gave up an unearned run to the Red Sox Sunday night.)

It’s not just the Yankees, either. The Rays went 9-1 over their 10-game road trip through Boston, Buffalo and the Bronx, their only loss coming to the Blue Jays Friday. Since getting swept by Baltimore, which got off to a surprisingly hot start, Tampa has won 13 of its last 16 games.

“We have plenty of challenges ahead of us, but you don’t have many road trips like we just had,” said manager Kevin Cash. 

That next challenge comes this weekend with a four-game series against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field. Toronto is riding a five-game winning streak of its own after sweeping the Orioles and then taking both games of Thursday’s doubleheader against the Phillies. Might a third team be entering the AL East division race?

The season is not yet halfway through, and the Yankees remain the most talented team in the American League, if not in all of baseball. They have three more games against the Rays, at home, beginning a week from Monday. In the meantime, they have two weekend series against the Mets—assuming the Subway Series can go on following

a pair of positive COVID-19 tests in the Mets organization—and another two-game set versus Atlanta.

The Yankees are 15-3 against all non-Tampa teams. They are in no danger of missing the postseason, especially not in this year’s expanded 16-team format.

But it’s not enough for the Yankees just to make it to October. With the signing of Gerrit Cole, a bullpen stocked four closers deep and a roster of clean-up hitters, they are a team built to win the World Series. If they don’t, it won’t be because of tight hamstrings, shoulder fatigue or the Houston Astros.

No, it will be because of the Rays.

Quick Hits:

• Don't load the bases against the Padres. Eric Hosmer ripped a grand slam in the fifth inning Thursday against the Rangers, San Diego's fourth straight contest with a grand slam, a MLB record.

• The Cardinals won their first nine-inning game since returning from the coronavirus outbreak that forced them to go 16 days without playing. 

Trailing 4-2 in the ninth with nobody out and the bases loaded, Yadier Molina hit an RBI infield single to bring St. Louis within a run in his first game back since recovering from COVID-19. Reds closer Raisel Iglesias then balked home the tying run and allowed the other two runners to advance. After an out, Kolten Wong lifted a walk-off single to deep right-centerfield.

• Need another reason why Fernando Tatís Jr. was right to swing at a 3-0 fastball with his team up 7-0? Look at what happened to the Phillies in the second game of Thursday's doubleheader. Philadelphia scored seven runs in the top of the first inning and held a comfortable lead until the bottom of the sixth, when it was Toronto's turn to score seven runs, giving the Blue Jays a two-run lead in their 9-8 win. The only thing worse than the unwritten rules is the Phillies' bullpen.

• The Astros completed a four-game sweep of the Rockies in Colorado on Thursday, giving them eight straight wins. They'll go for No. 9 without Alex Bregman, who was placed on the 10-day injured list Thursday. Houston already had been playing without Yordan Álvarez and Justin Verlander before losing Bregman.

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