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LOS ANGELES – In the late Sunday afternoon, life-sized shadows attached themselves to the heels of players largely indistinguishable from each other because of the non-chromatic uniforms they wore. The New York Yankees, burdened with head-to-ankles black in the 90-degree temperatures, appeared to be extensions of their own shadows. It was therefore hard to know where the Yankees ended and the shadows began, which is not an unreasonable metaphor in 2019. The answer lay somewhere in October and in a starting rotation still forming in the final days of August.
The Yankees hit their 59th, 60th and 61st home runs of August on Sunday, more than any team had ever hit in any month, and the 239th, 240th and 241st of their season, this though Aaron Judge has 16 all season and Giancarlo Stanton one. They’ve scored the most runs in the game, despite the injuries, which were – and are – plentiful. They crush left-handed pitching and are better against right-handed pitching. A few days back they gave Hyun-Jin Ryu about his worst whipping of the season, and on Sunday they hit three home runs off Clayton Kershaw, in this season unusual neither for them nor Kershaw.
So in a three-game series matching what some view to be decent World Series teams, the Yankees won two, on Sunday by 5-1. And in that series, 21 runs were scored, 15 by or as a direct result of home runs. There also were 72 strikeouts – again, in three games, a pretty good indication that October, like April through September, will be decided on the coiled back legs of hitters everywhere, swing hard in case you hit it, don’t come back ‘til you’ve blown an oblique, never mind the consequences.
The Yankees happen to be exceptional at that, as are the Dodgers. As are a lot of other teams, many of them headed for October themselves, their offensive games generally built around hitting the ball as far as they can, as often as they can. It’s how the game works now, which is fine by the Yankees, since, again, they’re loaded with those guys.
These things, series like these, always seem more important going in than they do going out, in this case the Yankees hauling duffel bags into Dodger Stadium on Friday afternoon and then lugging them to the airport for a flight to Seattle on Sunday night.
In between, they played three different baseball games with three different start times, in uniforms nobody liked, those games played from atop their leagues. The Dodgers already have a sensible magic number. The Yankees have buried the Boston Red Sox and run with the Dodgers and Houston Astros for the best record in the game.
And, yet, the shadows exist, the wispy unknowns that come with fragile men in a relentless game, with shifting strike zones and jumpy baseballs and dumb luck and, for another example, a thin and tremulous starting rotation. Those are the shadows we reference with the Yankees, where they start and where they end, about whether they will hit enough to get October leads to their formidable bullpen, about whether they are the team with the puncher’s chance rather than the team to be beat, whether three gloriously pitched days in Los Angeles was a beginning or an outlier.
Yankees’ starters are vulnerable, and that makes the Yankees vulnerable, particularly if their big lugs can be pitched to, which sometimes happens in October. Then three days in L.A. happened, as did this: against the National League’s strongest – by a lot – offense, on that offense’s home field where they hardly ever lose, James Paxton, CC Sabathia and Domingo German threw 16⅔ innings, allowed 15 hits and five runs, walked three and struck out 23. Paxton and 17-game winner German, postseason sureties, allowed three runs in 12⅔ innings.
A nice series win in August won’t count for much in October, but this is what it would have to look like in October, when the air gets thicker. This and this and Masahiro Tanaka and, maybe, with any luck, the first innings of the year for Luis Severino, the 19-game winner from a season ago. As one player said postgame Sunday, “We don’t need him on September 1 or September 15 or even September 25,” meaning there’d be no sense rushing Severino and his shoulder and lat ailments when there could be an entire month to pitch after that.
Meantime, after getting kicked around in Oakland for three unnerving days, Yankees pitchers held the Dodgers to 17 hits in 93 at-bats, a .183 batting average. Cody Bellinger, the NL MVP frontrunner, had one hit – a single – in 10 at-bats and struck out six times. Justin Turner had two hits in 11 at-bats. Max Muncy was two for 10. Corey Seager was one for 10. Dodgers hitters were two for 15 with runners in scoring position and oh-fer since Friday night.
By Sunday evening, the Yankees had come to town and taken it to the Dodgers, who’d filled the ballpark, set their shoulders, got their heads around games that would at least feel meaningful for the first time in weeks, even months, and came within a controversially granted timeout from being swept.
Which, probably, will amount to little, if anything. Except the Yankees, who, like the Dodgers, will glide to a division title and sort things from there, showed up and said they sort of wanted to win here. They wanted to test themselves out here, wanted to put some context to the Dodgers’ gaudy record, wanted to stand in front of Ryu and Bellinger and Kershaw and Kenley Jansen and Seager, wanted to see where their starting pitching was, how those shadows played.
“I mean, I think we all, if we’re being honest, looked forward to this series,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We knew about all the eyeballs. Even though it’s regular season, it felt big.”
It’s probably strange to be in August and believe there’s so little in the results that can hurt you. Strange, too, perhaps, to reach for the pitches and swings and plays that will be needed when the sun sets sooner and the shadows disappear, then to live with what comes. A good Yankees team packed its duffel bags Sunday night with a sense that this place is beatable, that the ball flies here like it does everywhere else, that its pitchers can do this. It won’t win a series here at the end of October, should it come to that. It won’t seem quite so shadowy either.
“That was a fun series,” said Aaron Judge, who homered in each game. “You could tell from the crowd, the fans were loving it and we were loving it. ... You just love that as a player.”
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