'Next man up' Yanks suddenly underdogs again

April 25th, 2019

The Yankees won another game on Wednesday, coming from 5-0 down against the Angels in Anaheim. They won another game and put another guy, Clint Frazier, on the injured list, just as Gary Sanchez came off it. So Frazier kept the number of injured Yankees on that list at 13.

But the Yankees manage to keep winning right now. They finally got ahead of the Angels when DJ LeMahieu knocked in Tyler Wade in the ninth inning. They beat the Angels on the same day that manager Aaron Boone announced that not only Frazier, who’d been his best hitter lately, was on his way to the IL, but that Giancarlo Stanton, who originally went to the IL because of a bicep strain, now is being bothered by an old left shoulder problem. The Yankees beat the Angels with Brett Gardner batting third, and with these four guys at the bottom of the batting order: Mike Ford, Gio Ursehala, Mike Tauchman, Wade. The names read like the bottom of the order of a split-squad game in Tampa, Fla., in March.

But the Yankees did win again. They are right there in second place behind the Rays in the American League East. The Red Sox, who are now 10-15, have basically lost one front-line player from the team that won the World Series last year -- Nathan Eovaldi. It feels as if the Yankees have lost everybody except the old Core Four. And in the process, they have become kind of lovable again, at least for everybody except hardest core of Yankees haters.

It is awfully hard not to love what they are doing right now with the guys with whom they are doing it. And without the guys with whom they are doing it.

There have been times, over the last quarter-century in baseball, when the Yankees really did make it difficult to hate them. It was, let’s face it, extremely difficult with Joe Torre’s Yankees, when they were winning four World Series in five years between 1996 and 2000, and doing that without outspending the world the way they would later. It was because of Torre, and because of players like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams and all the rest of them.

“It wasn’t just that we won,” Jeff Nelson, a star setup man for Torre’s Yankees and about to do some work for the YES network, said to me the other day. “It was the way we won.”

And then, out of nowhere came the Yankees of 2017, with Aaron Judge hitting 52 homers and the Yankees accelerating the process of general manager Brian Cashman’s on-the-fly rebuild and reboot. They won the AL Wild Card Game against the Twins and then were within one win away from the World Series -- what would have been their first since 2009 -- when they stopped hitting against the Astros in Games 6 and 7 of the AL Championship Series.

After that, the Yankees went out and traded for Stanton. And picking up him and the 59 homers that he’d hit the year before and his salary -- an Alex Rodriguez contract out of the past -- seemed to turn them into the Big Bad Yankees all over again, even at a time when the Red Sox were spending more money on baseball players than they were. And they didn’t go back to the World Series last season. The Red Sox did. The Red Sox won the AL East and beat the Yankees in the AL Division Series. They won it all.

Only now comes the spring of 2019. The Yankees lose Stanton and then Judge to what looks like a serious oblique injury. They lose their ace, Luis Severino, and Dellin Betances. And Miguel Andujar. Didi Gregorius is still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Aaron Hicks, their center fielder just signed to a long-term contract extension, got hurt. Sanchez got hurt, came back, just as Frazier was going away for a little while. On and on. Somehow the Split-Squad Yankees keep doing their “next man up” thing. And keep winning. For now, and maybe until their big reinforcements start coming over the hill.

“I truly feel it will make it sweeter after going through all of this,” Boone said after Judge’s oblique injury.

You know what? He may be right about that. The Yankees have struggled themselves in the early innings of this season, even against a schedule that was a pillow fight. But the replacement players have made them a team to watch right now. They are the ones who should be at the bottom of the AL East, but are not.

“They kind of had that Little Engine That Could feel to them back in ’17, even though they were still the Yankees,” former Yankees manager Buck Showalter said, talking about the run the Yankees’ made to their 3-2 lead over the Astros in the ALCS.

They were still spending money with both hands, even if others were spending more. But Judge, who carried himself with old-Yankee grace even as he was hitting balls out of sight, became the face of the team.

Now Judge is hurt. Everybody is hurt. Ford and Urshela and Tauchman and Wade batted six through nine in Anaheim, after it was 5-0 for the Angels. Didn’t matter for the Split-Squad Yankees. Gotta love it. And them right now.