Deja vu? Yanks facing familiar path to Fall Classic

August 17th, 2018

This was on May 27, a Sunday morning at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees getting ready to play the Angels, Aaron Boone taking questions from the media in the interview room across the hall from his team's clubhouse. At the end of this baseball day, the Yankees would be 33-17. The Red Sox would be 36-17.

Before the Yankees beat the Angels, 3-1, Boone was asked if he was "concerned" about the Red Sox.

"Am I concerned about them?" Boone said. "No, I'm not. I don't concern myself with the big picture of all that. But am I aware of what the rest of the league is doing? Yeah, I am."

Now it is August. The Yankees were the ones losing a 3-1 game, to the Rays, at home. But this was the kind of game they were routinely winning when Yankees vs. Red Sox seemed like the only race in baseball worth watching. The Yankees loaded the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth. Then Greg Bird popped up. struck out. struck out. And the Yankees weren't tied with the Red Sox, they were 10 games behind in the loss column, 10 1/2 overall.

This is what Boone said after that one: "I pay attention to the sport. I know what's going on. But I'm not thinking about what team is ahead or behind. That's just frankly a waste of time. We got to get after it. We got to get after the Blue Jays. That is my focus. That is our team's focus."

Same song. Different season.

A lot has changed for the Yankees in June, July, August. fractured his right wrist on July 26, hasn't played since. The Yankees originally thought he would only be out three weeks. Think again. , their home-run catcher, saw his batting average fall to .188 before he got hurt. The Yankees have added two starting pitchers, J.A. Happ and , and reliever Zach Britton. But suddenly the race worth watching, at least for Yankee fans, is the Wild Card race.

The Yankees still lead the American League Wild Card standings. They are three games ahead of the A's for the top spot going into the weekend. But the A's are just two games behind the defending champion Houston Astros now in the AL West. So it is hardly a crazy notion that the way the AL postseason began last season -- Wild Card Game -- and ended -- Game 7 between the Astros and Yankees, a one-game season at Minute Maid Park, Houston -- could be the way it begins this season: one game to advance.

The Red Sox are now 50 games over .500. The Yankees? Over their last 49 games, they are 25-24. Their record is still much better than it was a year ago when Joe Girardi was still their manager. They still have the second-best record in baseball, still have a quarter of a season left. They could still win 100 games.

Everybody knows what kind of run they made in October after beating the Twins in the AL Wild Card Game -- not only being in a game like that, but watching Girardi pull his starter, , after one-third of an inning because the Yankees were on their way, fast, to being down, 3-0, before they came to bat.

Everybody knows the Yankee' offense will look different and be different when Judge is healthy. They just don't know when his wrist will be healthy. The context with this club does not change: Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman got rid of a manager, Girardi, who had them within one victory of the World Series, which would have been the team's first in nine years. Steinbrenner's father, George Steinbrenner himself, once got rid of Buck Showalter after the Yankees lost the AL Division Series to the Mariners in 1995. Now Hal had signed off on essentially dismissing a manager who had gone a lot further into October than Buck did.

Again: The Yankees are much better off than they were after 121 games last year, when they were 65-56. In that sense, things have gotten better. Only Yanks fans think things are getting worse. The Yankees have added a lot to that 2017 team, including the 59 home runs that hit for the Marlins a year ago. They might bring in more reinforcements at the end of this month, and the way to bet right now is for another bat.

A year ago, under the previous manager, the Yankees were the best version of themselves starting in September. Now they need to do that again, because by the end of September no one will give a rip how much of a powerhouse they were in May and June.

Boone won't be judged, and the move the Yankees made to replace a manager who was up, 3-2, in the AL Championship Series won't be judged, on how well the Yankees stayed with the Red Sox over the first half of the season, or how much better the record is in 2018 than it was in '17. The Yanks and their fans look at things a little differently, even if they have only won one World Series in the last 18 years.

"They judge you here," Reggie Jackson once said, "on whether or not you get 11 wins in October."

The Yankees thought they were on their way to an even dozen last season, because they had to play the Wild Card Game. Didn't get there. Replaced the manager. The Red Sox replaced a playoff manager (John Farrell) and brought in a rookie to win it all this season. So, too, did the New York Yankees.

Joe Girardi and his team figured things out last year, all the way to Game 7 in Houston. Now Boone has Girardi's job. Now it's his job to figure things out at Yankee Stadium.