Things are always more interesting around here when the Yankees look like the YANKEES again, which means looking like they have a chance to be great again. That hasn’t happened in a while, maybe not since the American League Championship Series of 2019, one the Astros won with that buzzer-beating walk-off homer from our old friend, Jose Altuve.
They’ve definitely looked great so far, as just about everything possible has broken exactly right for them. They’ve been carried by their pitching, both starting and relief, by Aaron Judge and their other starting forward, Giancarlo Stanton. Judge and Stanton, of course, are the only two guys with 50-home run seasons on their resumes playing for the Yankees at the same time since Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were those guys in the ’60s.
They have also been remarkably healthy until Chad Green, one of the horses in Aaron Boone’s bullpen, came up with a sore forearm the other day in Baltimore. You add it all up, and there are plenty of reasons why, as we move up on Memorial Day weekend and one of the first important marking periods, they do not just have the best record, but have looked like the best team.
And if we feel the same way about them a month from now, then maybe we just might have a special Yankee team on our hands. We just don’t know that yet, as much as some of their fans seem to think wishing can make it so.
For now, we need to pump the brakes on the trip to the Canyon of Heroes, and an imaginary ride alongside the ’98 Yankees. They are a long way from there. And from being that.
Of course, you can only play who you play in sports. But the Yankees, unquestionably, have benefitted from what has turned out to be a dream schedule, one that in hindsight looks as if they drew it up themselves. Through Thursday’s games, the only team they have faced carrying a winning record into this weekend was the Blue Jays, against whom they are 6-3. Considering the fact that the Blue Jays were just about everybody’s darlings coming into the season, that matters. So does this: The 20-18 Jays really are the best team the Yankees have faced.
Against the rest of the schedule, the Yankees came into the weekend at 22-7. It was a record that compiled against teams a combined 33 games under .500. Seven of those wins were against the Orioles, who somehow roll back into Yankee Stadium this coming week like the Welcome Wagon.
So the Yankees are feasting on bad/mediocre teams again, something they didn’t do last season, something that cost them in the standings, and mightily, since one more win would have had them playing their wild card game against the Red Sox at the Stadium. So they are beating teams they’re supposed to beat, which is something division-winning teams need to do. It is another pleasant surprise in this very pleasant surprise of the Yankee season.
So far, so good. Which might very well turn into great for these Yankees. And turn into a great October.
Still: We are going to have a much clearer and much sharper sense of just how much game they really have, and how sustainable it is, in the season that starts Memorial Day Weekend against the Rays — much more of a rival for them the past couple of years than the Red Sox — and then extends for the next month.
In that month, they will play 10 games against the Rays. They will play five against the Astros, another blood rival for reasons that have now become too tiresome to revisit. Three other games against Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout and an Angels team that has been another pleasant surprise of the ’22 season. Three against the Jays in Toronto.
“There was all that talk about the Blue Jays coming into the season,” a really smart Yankee fan I know, was saying on Friday. “And it was like everybody conveniently forgot that it’s our friends from St. Petersburg who have won back-to-back titles in the East, something my team hasn’t managed to do in a decade.”
None of this diminishes what really has been a ’98-like start to this season and the excitement that has come with it for Yankee fans. Judge has become as big a star, in all ways, as there is in the sport, slugging like it’s his rookie season all over again, when he broke the all-time rookie home run record (until Pete Alonso broke it on him) and finished second to old friend Altuve in the MVP voting. Over the first quarter of this season, Judge has been second to nobody, not even Stanton, who’s been slugging in April and May the way he has in October for the Yankees.
For the past month, Gerrit Cole has been the kind of ace the Yankees paid him $324 million to be, the opposite of which he was in a Wild Card game when he couldn’t get out of the third inning at Fenway Park, the game feeling as if it were over by the time he got to the visitors’ clubhouse. Nestor Cortes, who brought his snappy 1.35 earned run average into the weekend, has maybe been the biggest surprise of this surprise season. Gleyber Torres has shown flashes of having it in him to be a baseball star again, even if his batting average through the Orioles series was .241.
And yet Aaron Hicks and Joey Gallo, two darlings of the front office, still had batting averages below the Mendoza Line when the Yankees got back to Yankee Stadium on Friday night. DJ LeMahieu still does not look close to being the hitter he was in his first seasons with the Yankees, at least not yet.
All of that didn’t slow them down on the way to 28-10. Another reason is that the Yankees have been blessed with amazingly good health at a time when the Mets haven’t had Jacob deGrom at all and won’t have Max Scherzer for two months and lost a key setup man in Trevor May and their own surprise starter in Tylor Megill and just had Starling Marte miss the Cardinals series on bereavement leave. And somehow, with all that the Mets have lost a grand total of one series since Opening Day and came into the weekend with a bigger lead in the NL East than the Yankees had in the AL East.
Buck Showalter’s Mets have survived a gauntlet already. We’ll see how long that continues without deGrom and Scherzer. As we are about to see how the Yankees survive the gauntlet of their schedule between now and the last game of their Astros series near the end of June. If they do survive, and keep advancing, then it’s worth talking about them having a chance to make this a regular reason to remember. When they finally start playing good teams we’ll know if they’re as good as they’ve looked against the bad ones. We just don’t know that yet.
POLAR BEAR POWERING THE METS, JJ OWES COUSY AN APOLOGY & FINALLY A HAPPY STORY AT FENWAY …
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