The Yankees are in first place. That shouldn’t be something to boast about this “early” in the season, and in another time it wouldn’t have even been something worth mentioning because it was expected. But when you haven’t won the division in any of the last six seasons and have spent most of those seasons chasing the division leader only to settle for a wild-card berth, being in first place through 45 games in the best division in baseball isn’t nothing.
The Yankees achieved sole possession of first place by winning four of six against the Rays over the last two weeks and sandwiching in a doubleheader sweep of the Orioles during that time. It certainly wasn’t easy to win the series over the weekend at the Stadium and at times it seemed like the Yankees were fine with not beating their direct competition for the division crown.
Let’s look back at the three games and how the Yankees took over first place in the AL East.
The Yankees got to Rays’ opener Ryne Stanek early when Kendry Morales hit a ball that would have hit The Dugout if Yankee Stadium lacked seats. The ball barely missed reaching the upper deck — a feat accomplished by very few in this version of the Stadium — and Morales had to settle for his first Yankees home run only reaching the third of four decks.
The solo home run held up for a couple innings until CC Sabathia allowed a frozen rope, line-drive home run off the bat of Willy Adames to left field. The home run would be the only run allowed by Sabathia as he would put together his longest start of the season, lasting six innings and throwing 84 pitches (6 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HR). Once Sabathia was removed from the game to begin the seventh and Aaron Boone got his hands on the game is when the game took a turn for the worst.
Boone brought in Adam Ottavino and he quickly retired the first two batters he faced before allowing a four-pitch walk. Despite only throwing 10 pitches, Boone removed the right-handed Ottavino for the also right-handed Tommy Kahnle to face the left-handed Austin Meadows, thinking Kahnle could now serve as his lefty specialist with the return of his velocity, command and changeup. Meadows singled off Kahnle on a 1-2 pitch, but Kahnle worked around the first-and-second jam, striking out Avisail Garcia to end the inning.
The Yankees didn’t score in the bottom half of the seventh, and I immediately thought we would either see Kahnle return since he had only thrown nine pitches or Zack Britton. Neither would go to the mound as Boone called on Chad Green. The same pitcher who had been sent down in late April after allowing 14 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings, including seven in 1/3 of an inning. Upon returning to the majors, he struck out the side in a six-run game in Tampa, and apparently that was enough to catapult his way from not being good enough for the majors to pitching in the eighth inning of a tie game with first place on the line. Green allowed a pair of doubles and a single and after his inning of work, the Yankees trailed 3-1. It was an easily predictable and inevitable outcome to everyone other than the manager of the team. Boone let Ottavino throw 10 pitches and Kahnle nine to get through a tie game in the seventh inning, and with the same score in the eighth, he gave Green an entire inning.
The Yankees trailed 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth when Luke Voit destroyed the first pitch of the night from Jose Alvarado over the fence in right field to cut the deficit to one, and Gary Sanchez followed with a line-drive single to left. Morales struck out for the first out of the inning, but Gleyber Torres fought through a 10-pitch at-bat and doubled off the wall in left field on a ball John Sterling called as a walk-off home run on the radio. The Rays chose to intentionally walk Clint Frazier and load the bases for Cameron Maybin. Maybin just had to stand there on the first pitch of his at-bat as Alvarado pulled a slider into the dirt and it bounced to the backstop as Thairo Estrada, pinch-running for Sanchez, raced home to tie the game. With the winning run on third, Maybin hit into a fielder’s choice for the second out of the inning.
That brought up Gio Urshela with runners on second and third and two outs. Urshela got ahead 2-0 and then drove what should have been a double to right-center, but will go down in the record books as a single to right-center to score Frazier and win the game, 4-3.
Boone’s awful decisions had been erased by an improbable ninth-inning comeback and the postgame attention would be on Urshela playing the role of hero again rather than on the manager’s ineptitude. Thankfully, just before Boone’s postgame press conference ended, he was asked why he went to Green for the eighth inning. His answer? Britton was unavailable. So if you went into the game knowing Britton would be unavailable, why have such a quick hook for both Ottavino and Kahnle?
The Yankees had sole possession of first place, but in terms of the big picture, Boone once again displayed his inability to make the right choices in a close and important game.
Clint Frazier has been bad since his return from the injured list, but no matter how bad he’s been, there’s no reason he should be sitting against a left-handed pitcher so Brett Gardner can play, let alone maybe the best left-handed pitcher in the world and the reigning AL Cy Young winner. However, that’s exactly how Boone wrote out his lineup on Saturday. To make matters worse, later in the game, Boone called on Frazier to pinch hit for Gardner against a lefty. So Gardner is allowed to face maybe the best lefty in the world, but not a left-handed middle reliever?
The Yankees got to Snell when he yanked a wild pitch with the bases loaded in the third inning. That would be the only run in the game as Snell struck out nine over six innings and Masahiro Tanaka one-upped by pitching six shutout innings, allowing just three hits and no walks with six strikeouts. Tanaka was drilled in the ankle by a batted ball for the third out of the sixth inning and with his pitch count at 88, it was unlikely he would return for the seventh and the ball off the ankle confirmed it.
Tommy Kahnle entered for the seventh and immediately gave up his first earned run since April 10, allowing a solo home run to Brandon Lowe. The Yankees were held scoreless in the seventh and game remained 1-1 to start the eighth. Oddly enough, Chad Green wasn’t brought in for the eighth, despite the score and inning being the exact same as the night before. Miraculously, Zack Britton was available and he pitched a 1-2-3 inning.
Aroldis Chapman pitched a perfect ninth and Jonathan Holder did the same in the 10th as the Rays’ bullpen matched the Yankees’ Super Bullpen. Boone’s eagerness to pull his relievers after an inning each no matter their pitch count meant they would eventually have to get their lesser relievers. Kahnle was pulled after 11 pitches, Britton after 10, Chapman after 13 and even Holder after 11. Luis Cessa came in for the 11th and for anyone who has watched every major league appearance of Cessa, you knew the tie would be broken. Two batters into Cessa’s outing, it was, as he allowed a solo home run to Austin Meadows.
The Yankees looked like they might have ninth-inning magic for the second consecutive day after Luke Voit singled off Jose Alvarado to lead off the ninth, but Aaron Hicks struck out, and Gary Sanchez, who was 0 for 4 with four strikeouts, grounded into a double play to end the game.
Back to second place.
I thought it was a joke, an unfunny joke, but a joke nonetheless when it was announced Chad Green would start Sunday’s game as an “opener”. It was embarrassing enough the Yankees were mimicking their opponent’s revolutionary change to the game, not smart enough to think of it themselves, but the whole point of the opener is to use an elite reliever to get through the top half of the order before letting a starter or another reliever see the weaker part of the lineup. Not only is Green no longer elite, but he’s barely in the majors, and his resume starting games is what sent him to the bullpen in the first place.
Green walked the first batter of game, and thankfully he was caught stealing second, as the second batter of the game doubled to right field. The third batter lined out to deep center and the fourth batter struck out swinging. Green needed 19 pitches in the first, and while he held the Rays scoreless, the first three batters were enough of an indication he would get knocked around if he stayed in the game. Boone disagreed.
The Yankees gave Green a 1-0 lead for the second inning and after a pair of groundouts it seemed like Green might actually get through his opening appearance. That thought lasted last than a minute as Green allowed back-to-back home runs on three pitches to Kevin Kiermaier and Willy Adames. Four pitches later, he drilled Daniel Robertson in the head. The high exit velocity and shear luck of baseball in the first inning wasn’t enough for Boone to pull Green. The back-to-back home runs weren’t enough either. It wasn’t until his lack of command left Robertson on the ground helmetless that Boone decided Green didn’t have it.
Chance Adams has been on the Yankees roster for what seems like forever now without pitching. If he wasn’t going to start or open Sunday’s game or come on as the second in relief and pitch four or five innings then why is he even on the roster wasting away when he could be developing more in Triple-A? Boone continued to let that question linger as he went to Nestor Cortes after Green. The same Cortes who the 47-win Orioles didn’t want, who allowed two earned runs in two innings in his Yankees debut in Tampa last week and who Orioles fan tweeted at me about this week to laugh at the Yankees for rostering him.
The Yankees gave another lead to their bullpen for the third inning, but Cortes wanted no part of pitching with a 3-2 lead. He walked the leadoff hitter and with one out gave up a double. Two pitches after the double, Brandon Lowe took him deep to center and the Yankees’ one-run lead was now a 5-3 deficit.
Boone stuck with Cortes in the fourth and when Aaron Hicks hit a two-run, game-tying home run in the bottom half of the fourth, I was sure Boone would now go to his Super Bullpen. Nope. Cortes came back out for the fifth. With the game still tied at 5, Boone would certainly go to the Super Bullpen for at least the last 12 outs, right? Nope. Cortes came back out for the sixth. At this point, I began to wonder why the Yankees were OK with losing to the Rays and handing them first place? The longer Cortes remained in the game, the higher the odds were the Rays would score against him and Boone seemed to be fine with letting Cortes stay in until that happened. It wasn’t until Cortes put two on with two outs in the sixth that Boone decided he had played with fire enough and called on Adam Ottavino to get out of the inning, which he did.
The Yankees scored seven runs in the sixth and added another in the seventh to win the game 13-5. Adams finally got to pitch, shutting out the Rays for the final three innings of the game, and for his effort, he was immediately sent down after the game. Green and Cortes? They’re still Yankees, waiting for Boone to inexplicably use them in the near future.
The Yankees are in first place by themselves. With a week of games against the Orioles and Royals, I expect them to stay there.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!