Yankees Thoughts: AL East Race Is Over

Yankees eliminated Rays last week and Blue Jays over weekend

The Yankees went to Toronto and won two of three, leaving with another game added to their double-digit AL East lead. Now with an 11-game lead, the Yankees have essentially clinched the division title in mid-June.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. I eliminated the Rays from the AL East race after Thursday night’s game. After this weekend, I’m eliminating the Blue Jays from the division race as well.

The Yankees’ goal for the weekend in Toronto was to win one game of the three. They won two of three. They should have won all three (oh, I’ll be getting to that). With three more games off the schedule and three more head-to-head games off the schedule, the Yankees’ lead over the second-place Blue Jays is 11 games with 96 games remaining.

To put into perspective how big a lead that is, if the Yankees play .500 baseball for their remaining 96 games, they will finish at 97-65. For the Blue Jays to finish with 97 wins, they need to go 59-37 (.615). The Rays need to go 61-35 (.635) to finish with 97 wins and the Red Sox 61-34 (.642). Again, this is all dependent on the Yankees, a team that has played .742 baseball to date, playing .500 baseball for the next three-and-a-half months. It’s not going to happen. Tarp the clubhouse. Get out the goggles and champagne. The Yankees are the 2022 AL East champions.

2. In the series opener on Friday, Jordan Montgomery was very solid once again (6 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HR), but he didn’t need to be since the offense scored 12 runs, including four home runs from Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Joey Gallo with a grand slam from Anthony Rizzo. The Yankees trailed 1-0 before scoring twice in the fourth and breaking it open with eight in the fifth.

On Friday, I wrote that I want Judge to lead off permanently, and he did that night, going 2-for-5 with a walk in the rout. (On Saturday and Sunday, he was back in the 2-hole.) Every Yankees starter had at least one hit except for Kyle Higashioka (no surprise there).

3. On Saturday, the Yankees went up against my No. 1 feared starting pitcher in the league in Alek Manoah. Through the first three innings, all the Yankees mustered was a Rizzo single with four strikeouts. It was looking like yet another lackluster offensive performance against Manoah until the fourth.

Judge grounded out and then Rizzo walked and Torres singled. Gallo struck out and with two on and two outs, Isiah Kiner-Falefa reached on an infield single bringing up Aaron Hicks with the bases loaded.

4. Hicks’ season has been a disaster. He has pretty much been a disaster either through injury or performance since receiving a contact extension in 2019. But this season has been exceptionally bad. He has been healthy, yet having the least productive season of his career. Hicks entered Saturday, the team’s 65th game of the season, with two home runs and one double. One double through 40 percent of the season. On top of that he has failed in every big spot, every bases-loaded situation this season.

But not on Saturday. On Saturday, Hicks got a 3-1 fastball and crushed it down the right-field line, clearing the bases and giving the Yankees a 3-0 lead.

There have been a lot of moments this season that have made me think just maybe this is a magical season in which the Yankees are destined to win the World Series for the first time in 13 years. The outstanding record. The multiple lengthy winning steaks. The performance at home. The walk-off wins. The historical run from the starting pitching. The MVP season Judge is having. The back end of the bullpen. The way each non-Judge member of the offense has seemed to have “their” game whether it’s Rizzo or Torres or Kiner-Falefa or even Jose Trevino and Higashioka, who finally had his on Wednesday night against the Rays. But when Hicks cleared the bases on Saturday, it became official that this season is truly special. If Hicks (of all batters) is going to get a big hit off Manoah (of all pitchers), this season has to be special. It has to end with a championship. If not this season, then when for this group?

5. This group includes the manager, whose illogical, nonsensical in-game management has been masked by the team’s overall success, for which he has contributed very little, if anything at all. On Sunday, the Yankees had a chance to sweep the Blue Jays, leading by five runs entering the bottom of the sixth. But then Boone got his hands on the game, and the Yankees went on to lose by a run.

Luis Severino had been scratched from his Thursday start against the Rays due to illness. He instead started three days later on Sunday in Toronto. He was OK, allowing three earned runs in five innings, but the offense had put up eight, so while Severino wasn’t his dominant self, it was good enough with the Yankees’ offense knocking around Yusei Kikuchi.

The Yankees led 8-3 entering the bottom of the sixth and Boone sent Severino back to the mound, despite coming off an illness, and despite having already thrown 89 pitches. He would be facing the 3-4-5 hitters for the Blue Jays for a third time, so it was extremely unlikely he would be able to get through the inning with 11 or less pitches to keep him under the 100 threshold the Yankees like to keep him at to protect him after his injury-plagued seasons of 2019, 2020 and 2021. I really don’t know if Boone considered any of this when deciding to send him back out for the sixth.

Both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Alejandro Kirk reached to begin the sixth, and Severino had thrown 13 pitches without recording an out. So then Boone went to the bullpen, bringing in Miguel Castro.

6. When Castro is on, he’s virtually unhittable with a fastball that can reach triple digits and a sweeping slider that breaks like a scuffed-up Wiffle Ball. The problem is he’s rarely “on” and each one of his outings involves him putting at least one baserunner on (usually via walk), lengthy counts and a lot of praying from the fan base.

Castro is best suited to enter games at the beginning of an inning. He then has a batter or two to settle in if his control is immediately an issue and needs tweaking. Calling on him with runners already on decreases his odds for success and makes a small margin of error even smaller.

Castro did get two outs in the sixth before meeting his at-least-one-walk quota per appearance. After that, it was a grand slam to bring the Blue Jays within one run at 8-7.

Following the slam, the left-handed Raimel Tapia came up. Castro didn’t need to face him as he had already faced four batters, meeting the three-batter minimum. The left-handed Wandy Peralta had warmed up and was ready to enter the game, but Boone stuck with the right-handed Castro. Tapia doubled.

7. With the right-handed George Springer due up, it made sense for Boone to then let Castro face Springer or go to another righty in the bullpen. He instead brought in Peralta to face Springer. Boone kept doubling down on his initial bad decision to bring Severino back out for the sixth. It was as if he were dealt a pair of 6s against a 10 and split them and kept getting pairs of 6s and kept splitting them only to get more and more pairs of 6s. Eventually, he would lose all the hands.

With the Yankees’ 8-3 lead now an 8-7 lead and the Blue Jays’ 2-3-4 due up in the bottom of the seventh, Boone sent Peralta back out despite the next seven Blue Jays hitters being right-handed. Four batters into the inning, Peralta had retired one and had allowed a go-ahead, three-run home run. Somehow, after the home run, he was allowed to stay in for another batter. Finally, with two outs in the inning, Boone went to the right-handed Ron Marinaccio, who inexplicably wasn’t used in the sixth inning after Castro or to start the seventh inning instead of Peralta.

I wish I could say I couldn’t believe what I was watching, but I watch it all too often. A situation just like the one on Sunday occurs at least once a week for the Yankees and Boone handles it exactly as he handled it on Sunday.

8. I’m not mad the Yankees lost on Sunday. I’m not mad they lost a game. Even at 49-17, they are going to lose games. I’m mad at the way they lost the game because it could happen in October. It has happened in October under Boone. Go back to Games 3 and 4 of the 2018 ALDS, or Game 2 of the 2019 ALCS, or Game 2 of the 2020 ALDS or the 2021 wild-card game.

It’s easy to manage the Yankees in games like Friday’s where the Yankees won a laugher 12-3. It’s easy to manage them in games like Saturday’s where they got the ideal formula of starting pitcher to Michael King to Clay Holmes. But when decisions need to be made in the middle innings like on Sunday, it becomes a series of implausible choices that usually leaves the Yankees trailing and needing the offense to bail out their manager. Many times, the offense does bail out the manager, especially this season, but that doesn’t make irrational decisions rational. If you drive drunk and make it home safely, it doesn’t mean you made the right decision.

9. I’m petrified of a situation like Sunday arising in the postseason and Boone ruining what should be a championship season (as long as the team stays healthy and the offense doesn’t perform it’s annual October disappearing act). The biggest threat to the Yankees reaching the World Series isn’t the Blue Jays, Rays or Astros, it’s Boone.

The offense isn’t likely to create even a single laugher in October given the expected opponents/starting pitchers (I doubt they will see Ross Stripling or Kikuchi), and it’s rare the ideal formula of starter to King to Holmes will happen frequently. Boone needs to be better. He has to be better. Unfortunately, we are now in Year 5 of him proving he may never get better.

10. The Yankees began this difficult 13-game stretch against the Rays, Blue Jays, Rays again and Astros last Tuesday. So far they are 5-1 with three at the Trop and four at home against the Astros left. They are on a 120-win pace through 41 percent of the season and are winning games in every way imaginable.

The Yankees are going to the playoffs. They are going as AL East champions. Everything between now and Game 162 is to prepare for the playoffs, and that includes staying healthy, adding to and upgrading the roster by August 2 and managing in a way that isn’t a precursor to the type of in-game moves that could ruin a season in October, and have in the past.

October is a long way away. Three-and-a-half months away. Everything between now and then should be done with ALDS Game 1 in mind. This isn’t just the best team and the best season this group of Yankees has had. This is one of the best teams and seasons the Yankees have ever had as an organization. It can’t be wasted.

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