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The Yankees are playing better. Their starters — and not just Gerrit Cole — have performed well, allowing three earned runs or fewer in 19 of their last 20 games. Their bullpen has been near airtight all season. Even their defense has ticked up a grade, perhaps two.
It did enough to assist in a 7-2 homestand. But Aaron Boone conceded, “There is more in there,” following a 3-2 Mother’s Day triumph over the Nationals.
The Yankees drew 10 walks, yet scored just three runs because they were 2-for-18 with runners on base — 1-for-17 before Giancarlo Stanton’s one-out RBI single in the ninth enabled the Yanks to win all three series on this stand. The last time the Yankees drew this many bases on balls and scored fewer than four runs was April 26, 2006, when they somehow had 14 walks yet just two runs in a 4-2 loss. That was long enough ago that Jason Giambi drew four walks and the opponent, Tampa Bay, still had “Devil” in its name.
Since the devil remains in the details, it should be noted the Yankees’ next opponent is Tampa Bay. No club dulls Yankees momentum like the Rays, against whom they are 6-16 since the start of last season, including the 2020 Division Series.
Tampa Bay excels at irritating the Yankees, living under their skin. They play David to Goliath expertly, finding an underdog spirit that evokes the worst in the Yankees. Well, that and having pitching that unplugs the Yanks. Which brings us back to an offense that even after this successful homestand remains below major league average in batting average (.222), OPS (.701) and runs per game (4.1).
The Yanks are 1-5 against the Rays this year and 17-11 against all others, and in those six games they have hit .168 vs. Tampa pitching with a .552 OPS while averaging 3.3 runs. There is no singular reason for the dominance, but this is an area in which the Yanks’ extreme right-handedness often works against them as the Rays’ power righty relievers find long avenues of matchup advantages.
The Yanks will get even more right-handed when the series begins Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Boone did not start Aaron Judge on Sunday to give his body a break before three days on Tropicana Field’s artificial surface. Gio Urshela, who did not play all weekend with an injured knee, also should be back. Plus, Luke Voit is due for his season debut after knee surgery.
At this point, the Yanks — as unbalanced as it is — are better off deploying the righty brutes and hoping they do enough damage against the Rays. Because the lefty hitters need a DH they have been so pitcher-ish. The Yankee lefties went into Sunday hitting .161, 19 points worse than any other club; with a .264 on-base percentage, 20 points worse than any other club; slugging .267, 24 points worse than any other club; and with a 12.7 line-drive percentage — the White Sox at 17.2 percent were next worst.
Sunday was a good day. The Yankee lefties were 2-for-7 with five walks. Aaron Hicks had an RBI single and Brett Gardner walked and scored, plus scorched a double. Washington lefty closer Brad Hand unforgivably walked Tyler Wade on four pitches to begin the ninth and Wade scored on Stanton’s single.
But what will those lefties do against Tampa Bay? Because they have done nothing the last two years to keep the Rays from deploying power righty pitching. The Yankee lefties are hitting .128 with a .363 OPS vs. righty Rays pitching this year with one extra-base hit (a double) in 44 plate appearances. It was .179/.579 last regular season with one homer in 96 plate appearances as the Yanks went 2-8 vs. Tampa Bay.
From this year’s team, Jay Bruce already has retired and Mike Tauchman was traded. So much falls on the switch-hitting Hicks, the one lefty bat sure to play regularly. He fouled a ball off his shin in his final at-bat Sunday and writhed in pain, but stayed in.
“I feel Hicks is swinging the bat much better in the last week,” Boone said. Hicks is 10-for-27 (.370) with five walks and three extra-base hits in his last nine games. Besides him, though, the better at-bats are all righty. DJ LeMahieu is again driving the ball well to right field. Gleyber Torres, who hit his first homer Sunday, is steadily raising his numbers. Stanton, even with a mostly lost weekend before the winning hit, has done a lot of carrying the team. And overall the Yanks are getting on base, they have the best walk rate in the majors.
But here comes the litmus test. Here comes the Rays.
“We need to go in there and play good baseball and go get a series down in Tampa,” Stanton said. “It hasn’t been in our favor lately. We need to change that.”
The offense must be right against the opponent which most bedevils the Yankees.
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