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Yankees Magazine: When Pedigree Meets Opportunity

As the Yankees came down the home stretch in 2019, they were right where they expected to be. The horses that got them there, no one saw coming
New York Yankees
September 30, 2019

Across 10 1/2 innings of baseball against the Oakland A’s on the final day of August, the Yankees had collected just five hits. Cory Gearrin, acquired off waivers eight days earlier and pitching for his fifth team in two seasons, tossed a scoreless 10th and 11th for New York, keeping

Across 10 1/2 innings of baseball against the Oakland A’s on the final day of August, the Yankees had collected just five hits. Cory Gearrin, acquired off waivers eight days earlier and pitching for his fifth team in two seasons, tossed a scoreless 10th and 11th for New York, keeping the game tied at 3-3. The Yankees had the top of the order coming up in the bottom of the 11th, with DJ LeMahieu set to face A’s reliever Lou Trivino.

Over the previous winter, it was widely expected that general manager Brian Cashman would acquire one or more of the big-name boppers available on the free-agent market. So, there was some initial head-scratching when it was announced in mid-January that the Yankees had signed LeMahieu, a Gold Glove second baseman who, in seven seasons with the Rockies, had never topped 66 RBI. Even with shortstop Didi Gregorius due to miss the first half of the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Yankees were loaded with talent in the infield. Where would LeMahieu fit in?

A’s catcher Josh Phegley crouched down and called for a fastball low and away, but Trivino’s first offering came in high and over the middle. LeMahieu, who had been 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in the game, blasted it into the right-field seats, about three rows in front of The Judge’s Chambers. It was his team-leading 90th RBI -- his Major League–leading 80th from the leadoff spot -- and the Yankees’ 74th home run in August, which obliterated the previous record of 58 in a calendar month.

“With our lineup,” LeMahieu said after getting doused with Gatorade, “records like that are going to be broken.”

Truer words were scarcely spoken this season. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, LeMahieu was filling in at third base for Gio Urshela, a replacement himself who one day earlier had become the 29th member of the team to land on the injured list in 2019 -- a rather dubious Major League record.

But there was plenty of other history made by the indefatigable 2019 Yankees, whose path to the postseason could not have been more fraught with obstacles or less predictable.

***

As the Yankees settled in to their spring routine at George M. Steinbrenner Field back in February, they made no secret of their desire to win the American League East for the first time in seven years. In 2018, they had played .617 ball over the course of the season to finish with 100 wins, but they went 44-32 (a .579 winning percentage) against division opponents. They rectified that in 2019, going 54-22 (.711) against AL East foes, including a 16-game winning streak over Baltimore, and clinched the division on Sept. 19.

From the get-go, however, it became evident that it was going to be a bumpy ride. It was as if health woes were some rite of passage, with key players heading to the injured list at an alarming rate. Head athletic trainer Steve Donohue did everything in his power to keep everyone upright, but it was a losing battle -- and not just for the guys on the 40-man roster. Top prospect Estevan Florial broke his wrist after crashing into an outfield wall during Spring Training. The team’s first-round draft pick in June, Anthony Volpe, contracted mono in August and was sent home to New Jersey. TV play-by-play announcer Michael Kay missed nearly two months after having a nodule removed from his vocal cord, and radio play-by-play man John Sterling missed his first games in 30 years. Even team photographer Ariele Goldman Hecht suffered a concussion after getting hit with a foul ball in Spring Training. The beat writers who covered the 2019 Yankees could probably pass the MCAT.

The weather was nearly as rough as the injuries, postponements forcing the Yankees to play seven doubleheaders -- their most since 1982. Yet they persevered, going 13-1 in those games. Any time the group faced adversity, it seemed to thrive.

In May, with James Paxton dealing with left knee inflammation and Jonathan Loaisiga landing on the 60-day IL, the Yankees deployed Chad Green as an opener -- hoping to get possibly two innings from their right-handed reliever before piecing the rest of the game together with a parade of arms from the bullpen. It worked, so the Yankees kept trying it. By mid-August, Green had opened 11 games, posting a 1.80 ERA across those 15 innings, as the Yankees went 10-1.

Paxton and LeMahieu were the Yankees’ biggest additions over the winter, but Paxton credits two other guys who hit free agency (albeit briefly) with playing major roles in keeping the team on the right track: veterans CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner, the only remaining players from the Yanks’ 2009 world championship team.

“We have really good leadership here,” Paxton said amid a streak of 10 wins in 10 starts from Aug. 2 to Sept. 21. “CC and Gardy do a great job; those guys are awesome. At times it gets intense, at times it’s relaxed. They just have a really good feel for where the team needs to be and kind of guiding us in that direction.

“I feel like there’s just a good chemistry here that makes everyone feel comfortable, and then we go out there and compete.”

***

Patchwork rotation, patchwork lineups -- manager Aaron Boone used 146 different combinations through 153 games -- none of it mattered. The Yankees just kept on rolling, especially at home. After dropping two out of three to the White Sox in mid-April and falling 5.5 games out of first in the division, the Yanks didn’t lose another series at Yankee Stadium all year. A win against those same White Sox on June 15 started a 13-1 run that vaulted the Yankees into first place in the division, where they would remain for the rest of the season.

A year prior, the Yanks spent most of the season looking up in the standings at the division-rival Red Sox, who caught fire early and never cooled off, clinching the division title at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 20 and then celebrating in the Bronx again three weeks later after eliminating the Yankees in the 2018 American League Division Series. In 2019, the tables were turned. Normally, a four-game series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park in September would be the talk of both towns. But with Boston trailing New York by 16.5 games at the start of the teams’ final meeting of the regular season, Yankees fans’ attention was divided between Beantown and Trenton, where Luis Severino and Dellin Betances were scheduled to pitch for the Double-A Thunder in the Eastern League playoffs while on rehab assignments.

As of Sept. 18, 24 different position players -- as well as Paxton -- had recorded at least one RBI for the Yankees in 2019. For three members of the Opening Day starting lineup -- Miguel Andújar, Greg Bird and Troy Tulowitzki -- their season total would remain at one. But with so many opportunities to drive in runs -- the Yankees’ .342 team on-base percentage was second in the Majors -- run production spewed from other, often unforeseen, sources. Fifteen-year veteran Edwin Encarnacion, who used to torment the Yankees as a member of the Blue Jays, joined the squad in June and knocked in 27 runs in 36 games. Thairo Estrada, who made his big-league debut in April, had 12 RBI on just 16 hits, and third-string catcher Kyle Higashioka reached double-digit RBI in his 14th game.

Hidden gems were unearthed from all corners of baseball’s talent pool. Mike Ford, undrafted out of Princeton in 2013, spent five years in the Yankees’ Minor League system. Seattle selected him in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, but when the M’s couldn’t find a spot for Ford on their roster, they shipped him back east. Pressed into regular duty this summer after injuries to Encarnación and Luke Voit, the New Jersey native homered off Clayton Kershaw in a 5-1 win at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 25, produced his first multi-home run game the next night at Seattle, and on Sept. 1 became the first rookie in Yankees history hit a pinch-hit walk-off home run.

Mike Tauchman, who had raked at Triple-A Albuquerque but mustered only nine hits in 69 big-league plate appearances for the Rockies over the previous two seasons, was traded to the Yankees on March 23 and became an integral part of the team’s success on both sides of the ball. He and Gardner were a formidable tandem in left field, part of an outfield defense that Baseball-Reference calculated to be worth more wins above average than any other outfield unit in the Majors.

“Defense is one of the most important things about this game; that’s what championship teams are about,” Aaron Judge said on Sept. 4 after recording the sixth outfield assist of his oblique injury-shortened season, moving him into a tie for second among AL right fielders. “The teams that usually make it far in the postseason and get to the World Series are teams that don’t give extra outs away.”

Defensive wizardry had always been Urshela’s calling card, but the offensive production that the third baseman showed after getting a chance to play every day amazed even the Yankees. A career .225 hitter entering the season who had gone unpicked in the 2018 Rule 5 draft, the 27-year-old stepped in for Andújar -- the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year Award runner-up -- and hit his way into the 2019 AL batting crown conversation. “We acknowledged that there were some numbers behind his regular numbers that indicated there was more with the bat,” Cashman said, “but it wouldn’t have led me or us to believe it was this much more. We’re obviously pleasantly surprised.”

Just about everyone who was called into action contributed in some way. Cameron Maybin’s season -- and perhaps career -- was hanging by a thread in April. Signed to a Minor League contract with the Indians after being released by the Giants in Spring Training, the former first-round pick was hitting just .216 with no home runs at Triple-A Columbus when the Yankees, desperate for outfield help after injuries to Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier, acquired the 32-year-old on April 25. Through 73 games, the right-handed Maybin was slashing .317/.393/.538 against right-handers and had doled out countless congratulatory hugs to his teammates.

“The guys who have stepped in for the injured guys did really well, which is rare,” said Austin Romine, who set a career high with four straight multi-hit games in September while Gary Sánchez dealt with a recurring groin injury that soon landed him on the injured list for a second time in 2019. “I think that’s why everybody’s taking a step back and saying, ‘Wow, this is special,’ because everybody that has stepped in has brought something to the team.

“The bottom line is, we’re good. Everybody that steps into the box, everybody in the lineup, is good. It’s just a rare occurrence that all the guys do well, and it’s welcomed.”

***

Yankees fans may point to the rant heard ’round the world -- the one that earned Boone a one-game suspension for raving a bit too emphatically about his hitters’ tenacity in the batter’s box -- as a turning point in the season, but in reality, the team had already been galvanized by its sense of harmony and support for one another. When asked to sum up what makes this Yankees team so tough, Urshela did not make reference to any savages or beasts. He looked across the clubhouse and said, “I can describe it as a family. As a group, we’re always trying to be together. I really enjoy being part of this team and how together we are.”

The Yankees simply refused to come apart. Whenever it seemed like they might go into a funk or let their focus slip, they stayed on track. Coming out of the All-Star break, they lost the opening game in 12 out of 21 series. In all but two of those instances, they rebounded with a Game 2 win. After taking two out of three at sold-out Dodger Stadium in a late-August weekend series that felt more like late October, the Yankees headed up the coast to face the last-place Mariners at a half-empty T-Mobile Park. They swept the series.

“I feel like they’ve done that all year,” Boone said in mid-September after his charges shook off a series-opening 12-11 loss in Detroit by sweeping a doubleheader at Comerica Park, then, after suffering their second walk-off loss in four days, responded with a 13-3 thumping of the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. “When we’ve been in some good winning streaks, they’ve brought it every day; they’ve finished series. When we’ve hit a bump in the road or had a bad game, they’re really good at turning the page.”

Not every performance came out of nowhere. Gleyber Torres, still just 22 years old, continued to blossom into one of the game’s best all-around players. Sánchez, despite the groin issues, authored an impressive season in which he broke his own single-season franchise record for home runs by a catcher. Closer Aroldis Chapman relied more heavily on his slider and threw his four-seamer less frequently than in past seasons, yet was still as dominant as ever. And the bullpen as a whole, which was expected to be great, lived up to its billing: Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and AL Comeback Player of the Year candidate Tommy Kahnle were on the verge of becoming the first quartet of teammates to each hold opposing batters under .200 while making at least 60 appearances.

But in a season that saw four-time All-Star Betances face just two batters, in which former MVP Stanton landed on the 60-day IL for the first time in his career, that featured just 12 games from Andújar, and in which Severino didn’t make his debut until Sept. 17, producing a second straight 100-win season and capturing a division title should have been impossible.

“What we’ve gone through would cripple teams,” said Sabathia, who was hoping to bookend his Yankees career with a second World Series parade before riding off into retirement. “I think it’s just the attitude of this core of guys. We know, man -- we can weather any storm. Nothing can stop us but ourselves. You know what I’m saying? I think it’s drilled into the core of these players, and it’s been fun to watch them battle and go through this [stuff] and not hang their heads. Not one player in there has hung their head or felt sorry for themselves.”

Sabathia and Gardner may be starving for another championship, and it’s not wrong to think that everyone would love to send Sabathia off with one last ring. But they’re not the only players in the Yankees clubhouse with championship pedigree. Maybin was acquired off waivers by the Astros in 2017, joining the team just in time to be added to Houston’s postseason roster and help them win the World Series. Chapman won a ring with the Cubs the year before. LeMahieu never got past the division series in Colorado, but he won an NCAA national championship at LSU.

Regardless of postseason experience, every member of the 2019 Yankees believes that they can go all the way this year -- even if another one of their brethren goes down along the way.

“It’s just next man up,” Sabathia said. “We get an injury? It [stinks]. But let’s go.”

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.