On April 20, the Yankees lost to Toronto and fell to 9-9. As is MLB tradition, 9-9 incited fear and rioting in fans, with New Yorkers and others nationwide lamenting both the ice-cold mega-acquisition Giancarlo Stanton and the rookie manager Aaron Boone.
Stanton, after homering twice in Toronto on Opening Day, hit a skid that saw him lost at the plate, so much so that he even struck out 5 times in one game. Twice.
But rest assured that 9-9 will go down as rock bottom for the 2018 New York Yankees. The club has now won 17 of their last 18 games, the Yankees’ first such streak since 1953.
On that same date–April 20–the Boston Red Sox were 17-2. They were already 7 1/2 games ahead of New York. Now, less than a month later, in this week’s series at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees will have already closed the gap and seized first place from the Red Sox.
While Mookie Betts, Chris Sale and the rest of the Red Sox aren’t likely to go away, their early season tear may be the last taste they get of the top of the AL East standings. Boston looks to be the second best team in the American League, however for the Red Sox winning 17 of their first 19 games was a hot streak.
For the Yankees, wins in 17 out of 18 may not be far from the norm.
Strike first and the lineup is built to come back. Or fall behind early and the pitching staff won’t let you back in.
In the case of the latter, the shiniest toys were thought to be in the bullpen, in the likes of David Robertson, Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman, however–in an old-school twist–the shiniest toy of all is Luis Severino. Still just 24, but (most importantly) one year older than he was last year, Severino is poised to be the best pitcher in baseball by season’s end.
As for the bats, Didi Gregorius was the AL Player of the Month in April and has already knocked in over 30 runs, and Aaron Judge has been steady since Game One. Giancarlo Stanton has only recently looked like his Ruthian self, and Gary Sanchez hasn’t been able to keep his average over .200.
Bur the scariest sleeping giant is not Sanchez or Stanton.
It’s the little guy at the top of the lineup, Brett Gardner.
It is said that there are three types of Major League hitters: first, the ones who are locked in, who are comfortable in the batter’s box, seeing pitches well and looking to drive the ball; second, the ones who are not in that groove, and are feeling their at-bats out, and just looking to make good contact.
Lastly are the situational hitters. Situational hitters are not hot or cold, they are just the hitters who happen to come to the plate in a situation where they have a job to do. Game circumstances can make any hitter a situational hitter, and good situational hitting is a hallmark of any good offense.
Brett Gardner has struggled through the first 5 weeks of the season as the second type of hitter. He has been below .200 with no power (unlike Stanton, or Gary Sanchez, hitting .193 but with 9 HR/28 RBI) to make that .200 easier to swallow.
But regardless of how the Yankee leadoff hitter is swinging the bat, he is always a great situational hitter. And like free throws for a shooter, having success in moving runners over and in can get a hitter back on track.
And in Gardner, the Yankees have not just speed but an elite baserunner. In fact, throughout his career, Gardner has ranked as among the best baserunners in MLB in every measurable stat (first-to-third and second-to-home on singles, third-to-home on doubles, base-stealing success percentage, grounding into double-plays, etc).
Getting stuck behind the Yankees will be a slippery slope, so mark the date. If the Yankees complete a series sweep of the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, Boston will leave the Bronx in a 2-game hole.
And getting out may be hard, because the Yankees have the shovel.
And they just started digging.