ANAHEIM, Calif. — Maybe, as things went upside down on them in August, the Yankees simply were not sizing things up properly.
The right-hander Jameson Taillon summed it up best with his attitude after a line drive gave him a swollen right wrist and drove him from Tuesday night’s game here after just two innings.
Happy that it was not fractured and complimentary of the Los Angeles Angels for having a “nice X-ray machine over there,” Taillon observed: “It’s nice to finally catch a break — or not a break.”
He was talking about himself, but he could have been talking about the Yankees. As they move into September with a trip to the Tampa Bay area for the conclusion of a two-coast, three-city, 10-game, 11-day trip, the Yankees’ mission for the final leg of the season is clear. They don’t need to catch breaks. They need hits.
The Yankees finished August at 10-18, the second-worst record in the American League for the month (Detroit was 9-18) and the franchise’s worst single month since September 1991 (9-19). Their average of 3.61 runs per game was fourth worst in the A.L. for the month, ahead of only the Chicago White Sox (3.59), the Los Angeles Angels (3.52) and the Oakland Athletics (3.3).
“We’ve got to play better than we have lately, simple as that,” Manager Aaron Boone said after two sixth-inning errors led to a three-run home run by Shohei Ohtani that doomed the Yankees, 3-2, and sent them to their fourth loss in five games. “We have to start racking up some wins. Whether the calendar has an eight or a nine or a 10 on it, we’ve got to get a little better.”
Flipping the calendar isn’t the worst thing that can happen to this team right now. For ball clubs in contention, Sept. 1 has meaning. It can bring a sharper focus and help tighten fundamentals.
“I think maybe there’s something to that,” Boone said during a conversation earlier Wednesday afternoon. “The end of July, August, is the dog days, right? Now my kids are going back to school tomorrow, the calendar shifts, some of the hot weather starts to cool off a little bit and you know it’s the stretch drive now. Rosters expand a little bit.
“It’s a mark on the calendar that means something.”
As the Yankees wrapped up their first five months, and their final West Coast trip of the regular season, the team seemed focused on the future.
“Whenever you’re going for a playoff spot or a division, it’s always fun,” said Anthony Rizzo, who has played in the postseason in six of the past seven seasons with the Yankees and the Chicago Cubs. “In a big market, it’s fun. Enjoying September, enjoying the moments, enjoying the games.”
Outfielder Andrew Benintendi, a part of three postseasons with Boston from 2016 to 2018, said: “Obviously, the last month of the season a lot of things happen with the standings. It gets down to nitty-gritty time. It’s exciting. It’s usually when the best baseball, I feel like, happens. In September.”
Having to convince itself of better days ahead can be jarring for a club that won 73 percent of its games (61-23) through July 8 and was leading the A.L. East by 15.5 games at the time. But injuries have piled up over the past few weeks. Offensive numbers have plummeted. And the Yankees’ division lead has shrunk to six games over the Rays with 30 to play.
Some of that injury luck could be turning around.
Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (left Achilles’ tendinitis) was activated from the injured list when this trip started in Oakland last Thursday, and the team’s breakout reliever, Clay Holmes (back), was activated here Monday night. Holmes’s slider looked sharp in two perfect appearances against the Angels.
Nestor Cortes (strained groin), arguably the team’s top starter this season before landing on the injured list, threw from a mound Wednesday for the first time since Aug. 21. The team hopes he will return to the rotation next week, though at a career-high 131 innings pitched, his workload figures to be managed through the playoffs. Luis Severino, another key right-handed starter, who hasn’t pitched since mid-July, is expected to make a rehabilitation start at Class A Tampa on Friday.
That good news is balanced some by lingering back soreness for Rizzo, who belted his 30th home run of the season Tuesday but was not in the lineup Wednesday. (He entered as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning.) Boone indicated that Rizzo might miss a few more starts as well.
“August, to me, was just kind of — that’s baseball,” Josh Donaldson said Wednesday afternoon before things unraveled for the Yankees again that night. “It happens. I feel like we were able to hold serve to where if we get some of these guys back and healthy, and we still have some guys who are going to come back and hopefully round into form. Being full strength is important.”
Donaldson (.222 batting average), second baseman Gleyber Torres (.242) and outfielder Aaron Hicks (.218) are among those whose bats the Yankees are working to ignite as Aaron Judge has been asked to carry far too much of the offensive load.
“Honestly, the last month, I haven’t felt terrible,” Donaldson said. “It felt like I’ve run into not really being able to catch momentum. I’ll have a good game here and the next game punch out once or twice and hit two balls hard that are outs. I can’t gather a head of steam. Really, the last week or two has felt good.”
Part of what attracted the Yankees to Donaldson was his extensive postseason pedigree with Oakland (2012, 2013, 2014), Toronto (2015, 2016), Cleveland (2018) and Atlanta (2019). While the Yankees by and large have struggled for several weeks, Donaldson identifies glimmers of hope.
“I feel like we’ve been able to put ourselves in situations where we’re trying to scratch together some runs, just like you would in the postseason, and we’ve been able to maneuver through it a little bit,” he said. “When push comes to shove in the postseason, we’re going to be able to do a lot of different things to score runs.”
Make no mistake, with Judge, Stanton, Rizzo and more, the Yankees will continue to rely on mashing, rather than bunts like the one dropped down by D.J. LeMahieu in Monday night’s loss. But versatility can bring its rewards.
Donaldson said he had situations in his time with the Blue Jays in which the team’s lack of ability to manufacture runs cost them wins, which he attributed to Toronto not having worked enough on those skills ahead of when they were needed.
“We failed in those opportunities, which kind of wound up costing us in the long haul being able to get to the World Series,” he said. “I don’t want to put it on any particular play, I’m not saying that, but maybe had we done it little more in the regular season, or had that capability or foundation to do that, maybe I’d be a World Series champion.”
Those types of thoughts can haunt a player years down the road when opportunities go unfulfilled. They are the kind of moments a Yankees team that outplayed nearly everyone else over the season’s first three months is looking to avoid in this year’s stretch run.
Boone, who said he had “total confidence” that his offense would get back on track, wouldn’t go so far as to say he is happy that August is finished, though, as the team packed for Tampa ,late Wednesday night, nobody was looking back.
“We’ve got to find a way to punch through,” he said, adding, “It’s right there in front of us.”