The Yankees are a fourth-place team, like the Miami Marlins, the Chicago Cubs, the Colorado Rockies, the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Angels. Those teams have losing records and no hope of the playoffs. The Yankees, in the more rugged American League East, are part of the pennant race.
But with two weeks to go, they do not currently have a spot. While Sunday was fun for Cleveland hitters named Ramirez — Jose and Harold combined to go 6 for 6 with seven runs batted in — it was miserable for the Yankees. They lost, 11-1, in Gerrit Cole’s worst start in years. They also lost ground in the standings.
The Tampa Bay Rays are running away with the division. The Boston Red Sox hold the first wild-card spot, and the Toronto Blue Jays hold the second. Tough neighborhood, but the Yankees are supposed to be the bullies of the block.
Baseball, alas, is nothing like real estate; you’d love to have the best house on a run-down street. At 83-67, the Yankees would be on the verge of clinching the National League East title. Instead they are fighting for survival, trailing Toronto by one and a half games for the second wild card, and barely ahead of the Oakland Athletics. Slumming again in a season of extremes.
To review: The Yankees started 5-10, then went 23-9. After a 5-13 stretch, they went 43-20, ending with a 13-game winning streak. Since then they are 7-15, a run that includes series losses to the Angels, the Baltimore Orioles, the Blue Jays (a four-game sweep at home), the Mets and, now, Cleveland.
“We’ve been in valleys, but we’ve had our peaks where we’ve played really well against some really good teams, too,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “A track record we’ve had, even going back a few years, leads me to believe it’s in there. It’s been frustrating as hell trying to get it out consistently, but that’s what we’re trying to do.”
They will try to do it against the teams they are chasing. After a three-game home series with the Texas Rangers, the Yankees will play three in Boston, three in Toronto and then will finish the season with three at home against the Rays. They’ll have to earn their way in.
“The bottom line is: We still control it,” Boone said. “But we’ve got to play better than this if we’re going to have a chance.”
After losing by 11-3 on Saturday, the Yankees looked even worse on Sunday. They could not solve a rookie starter, Eli Morgan, who came into the game with a 6.03 earned run average. Their infielders made two errors, their catcher gave up two passed balls and they spent the last three innings trying in vain to play home run derby, fanning eight times in their final nine outs.
To be fair, Cole was largely unlucky, knocked out by several soft hits, including a two-out bloop single in the third by Harold Ramirez that eluded two lunging outfielders. It scored two runs, including Jose Ramirez all the way from first.
But Cole also drilled the first batter of the game, walked the third hitter (both scored) and served up two long home runs. He was tagged for 10 hits by a team that has been no-hit four times (including once in a seven-inning game) this season.
“Just couldn’t get that third out and couldn’t get the ball off the bat, I guess,” Cole said. “It wasn’t falling our way, but at the same time, it’s September. It’s a crucial game. That was too many runs to come back from.”
Cole allowed seven runs in five and two thirds innings. It was the first time in his last 131 starts, postseason included, that he gave up 10 hits in a game. He was a Pittsburgh Pirate the last time it happened, in June 2017, the year before he became a consistent ace for the Houston Astros.
The Yankees lured Cole in free agency before the 2020 season with the richest contract ever for a pitcher (nine years, $324 million), and so far he has clearly been worth it. Sunday’s start was only his second clunker since the All-Star break, and along the way he has dealt with a Covid absence and hamstring tightness.
But Cole has pitched past the sixth inning just once since July 10, and if the Yankees do reach the wild-card game, they may not have the distinct pitching edge they once expected. Boston’s ace, Chris Sale, is healthy again, and Toronto’s Robbie Ray has emerged as the leading candidate for the A.L. Cy Young Award.
Cole left Sunday’s start after 104 pitches, trailing by six runs with two outs in the sixth. Some fans stood and booed, enough for Cole to notice. He paused for a while when asked if that surprised him.
“It’s a bad game, man,” Cole said, finally. “That’s New York.”
It was a mature response — Cole plays in the Bronx, not in Queens — from the Yankees’ most indispensable player. The fans are frustrated, and so is he. The punches land harder in September, and the Yankees are wobbling.
“No time left,” catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “We’ve got to get it done.”
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