It’s easy to forget how bad the Yankees were just five, six and seven years ago. Sandwiched between 18 postseason appearances in 19 years from 1995-2012 and another four straight from 2017-2020 were the “dark” years of 2013, 2014 and 2016. (I will give 2015 a pass because the Yankees did appear in the one-game playoff, and would have been in the ALDS in pre-2012 format.) Yes, I realize posting winning records in 2013, 2014 and 2016 isn’t necessarily “dark” compared to other franchise, but those seasons were dark in Yankees’ terms.
The darkest of them all was 2013 when injuries from 2012 lingered, new injuries in spring training popped up and the longest performance-enhancing drug suspension of all time followed the Yankees’ season. I remember going to the Stadium on Opening Day of the 2013 season against the Red Sox and thinking the Yankees would be in contention once again after their disappointing ALCS sweep at the hands of the Tigers the October before. I was wrong.
The Yankees’ Opening Day lineup:
Brett Gardner, CF
Eduardo Nunez, SS
Robinson Cano, 2B
Kevin Youkilis, 1B
Vernon Wells, LF
Ben Francisco, DH
Ichiro Suzuki, RF
Jayson Nix, 3B
Francisco Cervelli, C
(Facing a left-handed starter, the team had the vaunted Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay on the bench)
It was no surprise that Yankees team started the season 1-4. Maybe the mid-2000s All-Star Team wasn’t a way to go about building a roster. Then in the sixth game of the season in Detroit, they surprisingly pummeled Justin Verlander in a 7-0 win and went on to win four straight, seven of eight and nine of 11. At 10-6, the power of putting on the pinstripes never seemed so powerful. Sure, many former All-Stars and elite players had revitalized their careers wearing the Yankees uniform, but this was taking it to another level.
The 34-year-old Vernon Wells who had been unceremoniously let go by the Angels and hadn’t played a full season in three years hit .317/.394/.619 with five home runs in the first three weeks of the season. The 36-year-old Travis Hafner, who hadn’t played a full season in six years, hit .349/.440/.767 with five home runs in those three weeks. Kevin Youkilis at 34 with his career in serious decline had an .883 OPS with a pair of home runs, journeyman Brennan Boesch had an .857 OPS, newly-appointed starting catcher Francisco Cervelli was batting .310 with a .944 OPS. When the Yankees won in 11 innings over the Blue Jays on April 20 to improve to that 10-6 mark, Ben Francisco was batting second, Youkilis fourth, Wellls fifth and Cervelli sixth. Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix batted eighth and ninth and made up the left side of the infield.
Nearly three weeks after that, the Yankees swept the Royals in Kansas City to move to ten games above .500 at 23-13. In the third game of that series, Wells hit his ninth home run of the season, Ichiro was batting fifth, Chris Nelson (yes, who?) was playing third base and Chris Stewart was catching.
The Yankees’ success to that point was mainly due to their starting pitching. CC Sabathia (3.23 ERA) had yet to fall apart, Hiroki Kuroda continued to be one of the most underrated Yankees of all time (2.31 ERA), soon-to-be-40-year-old Andy Pettitte was masterful (3.83 ERA) in his final season, Phil Hughes’ career hadn’t completely collapsed (4.43 ERA) and David Phelps had given the team consistency as the fifth starter (3.44 ERA in three starts through May 13). Add in the dominant David Robertson and the still somewhat unhittable Mariano Rivera at 43 years of age amidst his farewell tour, and the Yankees’ early-season success made some sense.
The success didn’t last. The Yankees went 62-64 the rest of the way, finishing 85-77. They managed to keep the franchise’s winning-season streak alive (it began in 1993 and is still alive) and would have made the postseason under the 2020 eight-team format.
Wells’ power dried up and after hitting that ninth home run on May 12, he only hit two more over the next four-and-a-half months. Youkilis only played in 28 games total and Hafner 82. Aside from Robinson Cano’s .314/.383/.516 season, the only other bright spot was the return of Alfonso Soriano midseason, as he turned back the clock to 2002, hitting 17 home runs and driving in 50 in only 58 games with the team. There was also the Derek Jeter leadoff home run on the first pitch he saw in 2013, but Number 2 ended up playing in only 17 games.
Jeter wasn’t the only other expected regular to miss significant time. Curtis Granderson played in 61 games and Mark Teixeira in 15 games. Alex Rodriguez appealed his suspension, but was a shell of his former self, hitting seven home runs with a .771 OPS in 44 games.
Here were the players who appeared the most at each position for the 2013 Yankees:
C: Chris Stewart
1B: Lyle Overbay
2B: Robinson Cano
3B: Jayson Nix
SS: Eduardo Nunez
LF: Vernon Wells
CF: Brett Gardner
RF: Ichiro Suzuki
DH: Travis Hafner
David Adams (43 games), Mark Reynolds (36), Zoilo Almonte (34), Brennan Boesch (23), Ben Francisco (21), Reid Brignac (17), Brendan Ryan (17), Luis Cruz (16), Alberto Gonzalez (13), Brent Lillibridge (11), Chris Nelson (10), Melky Mesa (5), Thomas Neal (4), Corban Joseph (2) and Travis Ishikawa (1) all also played for the 2013 Yankees.
In 10 years as Yankees manager, Joe Girardi never had a losing season, went to the postseason six times, won the World Series (2009) and went to the ALCS in three other years (2010, 2012, 2017), but it was 2013 that was his best season. That Yankees team had no business winning 85 games. They had no business winning 75 games. Girardi deserved to win American League Manger of the Year for that team’s performance. He deserved to win Manger of All Time. He deserved to have the award named after him. The roster, lineups and batting orders are somewhat funny to look back on now, though I’m still not over that wasted season, so it will take a few more years to truly be funny. But it’s easy to recognize and appreciate the work Girardi did that season to keep his team afloat when it shouldn’t have made it out of April.
It was miraculous, yes an actual miracle, the 2013 Yankees finished with a winning record and eight games above .500. It was Girardi’s finest work as Yankees manager and maybe the finest work any manager has ever had in the history of the game. I just never want to experience a season like it again.
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