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The baseballs came flying from the grandstand, a diminished-capacity crowd inserting itself into the game in a most distasteful fashion. Anger often cloaks insecurity, and as the New York Yankees suffered the first of three losses to their official nemeses, the Tampa Bay Rays, a hail of balls that halted Friday's game seemed not so much a show of disgust as it was a creeping realization.
After four seasons of largely dominating their opponents, nothing is going to come easy for these Yankees.
Oh, it’s not panic time, although the Yankees’ 5-10 start – their worst since 1997 – has kick-started the blame game in the Bronx.
Let’s be clear: The Yankees are going to be fine.
Stretches of bad baseball are always amplified at the start of a season, although losing 10 of 15 at any point calls into question a team’s viability. This has been an almost complete breakdown, with only the bullpen producing numbers that resemble some version of its best self.
Sensing the unrest, general manager Brian Cashman called a rare off-day video news conference Monday, offering something of a mea culpa while hiding the panic button.
"I'm not here to do anything other than to say we're disappointed with how we started this season," says Cashman. "We will get it corrected."
Some of this will self-correct: There is no way the Yankees will finish with the worst OPS (.642) in baseball, nor rank 25th in runs scored, as they do now. Luke Voit will be back in less than a month, patching up the black hole in the lineup that has housed the now-retired Jay Bruce and Rougned Odor.
Go ahead and bet against some of these guys – center fielder Aaron Hicks’ two-way performance has been particularly desultory – but age and track record of the collective suggests a teamwide slump that will eventually pass.
Go ahead and fret about the starting pitching – Cashman’s roll of the dice on reclamation projects Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon looks as shaky as a skeptic imagined. Kluber’s three starts have been loud – a 6.10 ERA and an alarming 47% hard-hit rate on batted balls. Taillon has had one good and one bad start and deserves more runway after not pitching for nearly two years.
Yet the offense will eventually score enough to ensure Gerrit Cole doesn’t become the Bronx’s answer to hard-luck Jacob deGrom. Jordan Montgomery looks viable. Domingo German’s alternate-site banishment will end this week. Many teams would enjoy such problems.
No, they’re not in trouble. But suffice to say, their recent run of exceptionalism may be over.
In this rings-or-die era of odious sports debate, the last four Yankee teams will only be footnotes, with nary an American League pennant to show for their efforts.
But their playoff failings – coming in gut-punch ALCS losses in six and seven games to the Astros and in ALDS losses to division rivals Boston and Tampa Bay – belie an admirable consistency.
The Yankees played .600 ball – 327-219 – from 2017 to 2020. They won 100 games in 2018 but ended up a wild card because the Red Sox, perhaps the greatest team this century, won 108. There’s no telling what the Yankees might have accomplished had the Astros played on the level, both in the video room and in other, stickier situations.
The Yankees win the 2019 World Series if Cashman signs Patrick Corbin, whose demand for a sixth year caused the GM to fold and roll the dice on J.A. Happ and James Paxton. Corbin is now struggling in his third season in Washington, a hollow reward for Cashman’s prudence; the Nationals, 2019 World Series champs, aren’t asking for a do-over on that $140 million deal.
Now, that 103-win 2019 season looks like the apex for this group. And the Yankees’ drop back into the pack stems from reasons both internal and external.
You wonder how much they took for granted Masahiro Tanaka, who from 2015 to 2019 provided a 3.90 ERA and a 111 adjusted ERA over 175 innings per year – nothing flashy, but something of an essential food group for a successful squad.
When Gleyber Torres slugged 38 home runs in 2019, it made sense to move on from the steady and productive Didi Gregorius. But Torres, still just 24, is homerless in 2021, batting .196/.317/.235. At shortstop, he is minus-11 in Defensive Runs Saved between the 60-game 2020 and this year already.
While it’s still way too early, it’s not premature to see a Dodgers And Everyone Else shape to this 2021 season; entering Monday, 22 of 30 teams were no better or worse than three games above or below .500.
At 5-10, the Yankees can’t even count themselves in that group. Before the season, Vegas pegged them for 95-ish wins, which would now require a 90-47 finish (.612) to achieve.
Once again, things are a lot different now than they were a couple years ago.
From 2017 to 2019, the Yankees’ road to the AL East title consisted largely of speed bumps: New York went 142-86 (.623) against the Red Sox, Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays. That dominance peaked in 2019, when the Yankees won 17 of 19 from Baltimore and posted a staggering 54-22 mark (.711) within the division.
In 2020’s 60-game season, the Yankees won nine of 10 from the decimated Red Sox but the pack made gains elsewhere – New York split 10 games with Toronto, went 7-3 against Baltimore and lost eight of 10 to Tampa Bay.
Ah, yes, the Rays.
From stealing the division title last season to ousting the Yankees in a contentious five-game ALDS to winning five of six games to accelerate the Yankees’ tailspin this season, the Rays remain their biggest menace.
It’s also clear they are nonplussed by all things Bronx. Sunday, the Rays deployed their closer, Diego Castillo, in the seventh inning and he blew through DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Hicks and Stanton.
That left the ninth inning to a fellow named Jeffrey Springs, a Ray only after Boston designated him for assignment in February. He pitched a perfect ninth for his first career save, Exhibit Z in the Rays’ plug-and-play model.
They are making it look as easy as the Yankees make it look hard, even with a $324 million ace and a payroll in the $200 million neighborhood.
"Right now," says Cashman, "we would be a team that an opponent would want to play."
The Rays and Yankees next meet May 11, by which time Voit could be back and the Bombers more resemble their true selves.
In recent history, that’s been more than enough. It’s still possible 2021 is no different.
But the road will be a lot bumpier than usual.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Yankees off to worst start since 1997, but they're not that bad