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The Yankees have come a long, long way from “we suck” and our play “stinks to high heavens.” Those were Brian Cashman’s words at the end of June, of course, after his team had lost four straight.
Who needs a big-city columnist when a big-city general manager talks like that?
A long time ago, when he first declared that the Yankees’ annual mission statement is to win the World Series, Cashman set the terms of engagement with the media and the fans. If the Yankees weren’t playing like serious championship contenders, they would get ripped for failing to measure up to their own stated standard.
That’s why Cashman and everybody who cares about his team were acting as if the Yankees were 10 games south of .500 when they were 40-38. And that’s why nobody is doing any end-zone dances over the fact that they suddenly look like a slam-dunk favorite to host the wild-card playoff game, and a credible threat to win the American League East after being 10 games back last month.
The Yankees were down 4-1 to the Mariners after two innings Saturday, and with Andrew Heaney one pitch away from complete disaster, it felt a lot worse than that. But the home team worked the problem — slowly, but very surely — and delivered a third straight comeback victory over Seattle that elevated its own big-picture hopes and greatly enhanced the possibility that the Mariners will miss the postseason for a 20th consecutive year.
Given how the Yankees have competed and changed since beating the Mets in the second game of their Fourth of July doubleheader, they could be a fearsome opponent come October. Yeah, they have to make the postseason first, but it’s getting harder to believe that the Athletics or Blue Jays (or even the Red Sox) will stop them. If Luis Severino and/or Corey Kluber return as reasonable facsimiles of what they used to be, the Yankees will be an even bigger handful than they are right now.
They’ve won 20 of 28 games over the last month and change, starting with that desperately needed victory over the Mets, and no team has been hotter. As the Mets have fallen apart, the Yankees have reminded everyone that a baseball season is the longest of marathons, and that resilience (not to mention a seasoned GM working the trade market) is just as important as talent.
“We feel like we’re never out of any game,” Aaron Judge said. The slugger spoke of the Yankees’ internal belief during the bad times that their hard work would ultimately pay off. “I just don’t think anybody outside of our club believed it,” he said.
And for good reason. The Yankees spent the first half of the season playing robotically and indifferently, looking like a bunch of well-paid stiffs. Then, something changed even before Cashman landed Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo at the trade deadline.
“There’s definitely been a toughness,” manager Aaron Boone said when asked to identify a common thread running through the last 28 games that took his team from 41-41 to 61-49.
“These guys are comfortable playing in close games, and even at times when we haven’t blown the doors off people or scored a ton, for the most part we’ve gotten really strong starting pitching. We’ve had three heartbreaking losses in that mix too. … It hasn’t fazed them. They keep getting off the mat even after the toughest of losses, even after the peaks and valleys we’ve been through this year. They keep on going and they expect a lot of themselves.”
Heaney, the newcomer, could have thrown up his hands with the crowd booing him and resigned himself to a second miserable start as a Yankee. Instead he stood and fought a day after his manager had used nine pitchers over 11 innings, and hours after his manager had put Aroldis Chapman on the injured list. Heaney hung in there long enough — six innings, 109 pitches — to get the win and to ask Boone if he could go out for the seventh.
“That’s a tough effort,” the manager said.
All across the board. DJ LeMahieu finished off the four-run sixth by smartly getting caught in a rundown between first and second with two outs to allow the decisive run to score. Nobody is complaining about the Yankees’ baserunning anymore, or their poor fundamentals, or their unbalanced right-handed lineup, or their lack of athleticism. Rizzo and Gallo have made an impact on both sides of the ball, and the crowd has responded in kind.
“Yankee Stadium can be a special place,” Boone said. “You don’t feel that kind of energy and buzz in a lot of places.”
Especially in October, a month when the same Yankees who stunk to high heavens earlier this season could come up smelling like a rose.
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