The Yankees Wake Up, Allowing Fans to Dream Again
The Yankees and the Mets have spent four months together atop the East divisions of the American and National Leagues. They played close games on four nights in two boroughs this summer, with four weeks in between. The Mets swept the Yankees in Queens, the Yankees swept the Mets in the Bronx. The final hitter even flied out to center field, same as it was way back when.
That was in the Subway Series — the capitalized version, in 2000, when the Yankees beat the Mets in a five-game World Series that was riveting from first pitch to last. The city can dream of an encore again, because the Yankees have shaken their slumber.
Until these Yankees, no team had ever played .700 baseball for the first 60 games of a season, then followed up with a losing record for the next 60. Whatever else happens, then, the 2022 Yankees will always have that: first team to ever be that strong and that sluggish, in equal measures, just before the stretch run.
“The most important thing is we learned from it,” said Aaron Judge, after the Yankees’ third 4-2 victory in a row on Tuesday night. “We learned about what not to do.”
You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have — well, we’re about to find out. These are the facts of the Yankees’ life: Their record is not quite as good as the Mets’, but their position is sturdier. The Yankees headed for the West Coast late Tuesday night with an eight-game lead over Tampa Bay in the A.L. East. The Mets stood just two games in front of Atlanta on the N.L. side.
“A lot of people would love to have their problems,” Mets Manager Buck Showalter said of the Yankees, before Monday’s game — and maybe he knew something.
The Mets had just stolen a win in Philadelphia on Sunday, getting most of their outs from pitchers making their major league debuts. On Monday, Showalter sent a future Hall of Famer, Max Scherzer, to the mound — and the Mets lost, of course, because baseball is so delightfully bizarre.
That game assured the Yankees of snapping their streak of six losing series in a row. They had not done that since 1995, when Showalter was their manager. After thousands of games in other dugouts, Showalter, naturally, has gone full Met; when a reporter mentioned the lively crowd at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, Showalter replied, “Yeah, it was almost as good as ours that we had at Citi Field.”
Tuesday night had everything a Yankee fan could want: stylish defense, stout performances by Frankie Montas and Andrew Benintendi — the team’s main additions at the trading deadline — and a homer by Judge for the second night in a row. In the nine games before that, he hadn’t gone deep.
“Home run drought?” Judge said after Monday’s blast, an opposite-field shot off Scherzer. “That’s news to me.”
On Tuesday, off Taijuan Walker, Judge launched a 453-foot blast deep into the bleachers above left-center. He took command of the stage, as usual — that’s 10 homers in 21 career games against the Mets — and has now connected 48 times for the season.
Through the same number of team games in 1961, Roger Maris had hit 49 home runs for the Yankees on his way to an A.L.-record 61. Maris hit .269 that season, with a .372 on-base percentage and a .620 slugging percentage. Judge is better in each metric: .294/.394/.663.
“The dude is pretty much the best hitter right now,” Montas said. “I feel like every time he steps to the plate, everybody expects a home run. I mean, he’s a stud.”
The Yankees surely wish Judge had taken their contract offer in April, yet they must be impressed by the confidence he showed in rejecting it. Judge, who turned down seven years and $213.5 million, challenged himself to show he was worth even more — and now he is stirring memories of hallowed names like Maris and Mickey Mantle.
“You still don’t believe it,” Judge said. “It’s pretty wild to think about, especially the things that they accomplished over their career, the things they did for this game of baseball, the records they set. I try not to look at it, because we’re still a long way away from even being in that class.”
The subplot will only intensify as the season rolls on; the division title is all but assured, and the next week should help the Yankees further distance themselves from their 4-14 start to August. Their bumbling opponents — the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels — are only part of the reason.
The roster is about to get a jolt: the slugger Giancarlo Stanton will come off the injured list on Thursday after missing a month with left Achilles tendinitis, and closer Clay Holmes is nearing his return from back spasms. Starter Luis Severino (shoulder) threw 24 pitches off a mound on Tuesday, and reliever Zack Britton (elbow) is beginning a rehabilitation assignment this week.
Exceptional health was a largely overlooked cause of the Yankees’ torrid start. The first few months, General Manager Brian Cashman said, was “probably the best run of non-injuries I’ve ever experienced.” Even so, Cashman tempted fate by trading for an injured player, Harrison Bader, who is still recovering from plantar fasciitis.
Bader, a Gold Glove center fielder for St. Louis last season, is a Yankee in haircut only, his flowing blond locks gone to comply with team policy. On the clubhouse television Monday night, the pitcher the Yankees traded for Bader — Jordan Montgomery — was spinning a one-hit shutout for the Cardinals. When he finished it, some of his old teammates cheered.
Montgomery is now 4-0 for St. Louis, and Montas is still seeking his first win for the Yankees. But he pitched well on Tuesday and succeeded in rattling the Mets’ Pete Alonso, who whiffed on a high fastball and took it out on his bat, cracking it over his left leg on his way back to the dugout.
Alonso’s bat snapped as easily as a Kit-Kat bar; if he does it in the same setting two months from now, we’ll be seeing the clip forever. The World Series magnifies everything, and with the Yankees looking like themselves again, an all-New York version is back in play. If the summer games were a preview, an autumn reprise would be spellbinding.
“Especially against a great ballclub like that, battling down to the last inning, out, strike — that’s fun baseball,” Judge said. “That’s why we play this game, for moments like that.”