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A.J. Hinch, as the Tigers manager, arrives at Yankee Stadium on Friday followed by his old Astros team Tuesday.
So the Yankees’ begin their longest homestand of the season assured that the home fans’ derision will be directed toward the enemy. Yankee loyalists were denied their chance last year to jeer the cheaters who eliminated them in the 2017 ALCS. So even prorated down by COVID-19 rules, the home crowd almost certainly will recall its fury from the sign-stealing revelations exposed after the 2019 campaign.
But the Yankees should not expect their fans to live in the past too long. The Yankees return home playing better — or was that a reflection of the offensively meek Indians and the everything-stinks Orioles? — yet still only 11-14.
The minimum acceptable outcome is a 6-3 homestand against the worst-in-the-majors Tigers, down-a-grade (or two) Astros and hardly 2019 championship level Nationals. That would nudge the Yankees to .500. That would provide further evidence — with April turning to May — that the Yankees have escaped the ineptitude of so much of the first month.
“I think we are playing better baseball,” Jordan Montgomery said after the Yankees lost 4-3 to the Orioles in 10 innings.
They are. Montgomery is part of a rotation chorus behind ace Gerrit Cole that is pitching better. The bullpen — even with a key run Thursday against Darren O’Day — has been among the majors’ best; Aroldis Chapman struck out the side against Baltimore and has whiffed 20 of the 29 batters he’s faced in 2021.
The run prevention has been terrific even with iffy defense. And let’s be fair to Gleyber Torres — his work at shortstop after a spotty beginning has been much improved. It might be instrumental to remember that at the outset of his first Yankee season, 2015, Didi Gregorius looked as if he had never played the position before as the heir to Derek Jeter, then after a few weeks settled into more than competence.
And Torres had a game-tying double with two outs and two strikes in the ninth that would have scored two runs and given the Yankees a lead had it not taken a long hop over the fence for a ground-rule double.
Still, this patient was not fully healthy as it returned home. The offense continues to not fully click. Aaron Judge was out of the starting lineup for a second straight game with Judge-itis — good luck getting more than that out of Aaron Boone. That pushes a greater burden on Yankees depth, and they are just not as strong in that area.
The final four hitters in Thursday’s lineup — Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez, Clint Frazier and Brett Gardner — are hitting .190 or worse. Hicks is beginning to get all Jacoby Ellsbury-ish, performing and looking as if he has checked out. The backup center fielder, Gardner, has energy, but not nearly enough hits. The backup to the backup, Mike Tauchman, is now a Giant. That removed a lefty bat and athleticism from a team hungering for both.
Tyler Wade is lefty. He is athletic. But his regression from a potentially useful 26th man continues. His defensive game in the infield was rough in spring training. He was handed a 26th-man task Thursday that his skill set screams he has to be able to handle. With the free runner on second to begin the 10th of a 3-3 game, Boone asked Wade to attempt to sacrifice. Which certainly is not easy against a hard-throwing, wild lefty like Tanner Scott. But if Wade cannot do this, what is his value to this roster? His heart simply didn’t look into it as he kind of sort of squared, fouled off a couple of meh attempts and struck out trying to bunt three times.
“That is something Wade has to handle,” Boone said. In his publicly critical-less world, that is a scolding. He felt Wade was trying too hard to get the third baseman to field a bunt and should have been less fine and made sure to get something into play.
Ultimately, though, the Yanks did not lose because of their 26th man; Hicks, for example, walked in his first plate appearance, then didn’t get the ball out of the infield in his next four, all with runners on base. But Brian Cashman is going to have to find better depth and versatility as this season progresses.
In the short term, though, Boone has said he expects Judge to play all three games over the weekend versus the Tigers (he also said on Wednesday that Judge would start Thursday and that didn’t happen). The Yanks, nevertheless, will open a nine-game stand Friday with their favorable stadium, their ace (Cole starting), a weak opponent and the crowd’s wrath directed at the visiting dugout.
Will they keep the boos directed at the enemy?
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