It’s confusing sometimes, but the Yankees manage to stay on track

By James Wagner

If you had somehow forgotten the uniqueness of the 2020 Major League Baseball season, the New York Yankees’ weekend series against the New York Mets had plenty of reminders. They played five games in three days at Yankee Stadium after a Mets player and staff member tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing a postponement of the previous weekend’s series at Citi Field.

They played doubleheaders Friday and Sunday, which were made a bit more manageable thanks to the seven-inning games and expanded rosters. But all the cramming led to a moment Friday that encapsulated the Yankees’ fortunes of late.

When closer Aroldis Chapman surrendered a walk-off, two-run home run to Mets shortstop Amed Rosario in the seventh inning of the second game, both players seemed to forget the Mets were the home team even though the game was in the Bronx.

Rosario said he did not realize his blast had won the game until he saw his teammates streaming out of the dugout in delight. Dominic Smith said he thought he had seen Chapman signaling to the home plate umpire for a new ball so he could continue pitching.

“I was a little confused,” Chapman said later.

The Yankees, who improved to 19-13 after sweeping Sunday’s doubleheader, have witnessed similar scenes, although with less awkwardness, over parts of the last two weeks: Their offense struggled to produce enough runs, and their bullpen squandered opportunities. Both are normally strengths — even last season, when the team was depleted by injuries.

That has not always been the case this year, which was why general manager Brian Cashman said over the weekend that he was looking for outside help, particularly for pitching, ahead of the trade deadline, which was 4 p.m. Eastern time Monday.

Entering Sunday, the Yankees had lost seven of their previous eight games. In that stretch, their offense averaged an anemic 2.6 runs per game, and their bullpen produced a 7.65 ERA while blowing leads or falling behind in ties in six games.

The Yankees reversed course in the first game Sunday, beating the Mets, 8-7, on a game-tying, two-run home run by Aaron Hicks in the bottom of the seventh inning, and a game-ending single by Gio Urshela in the eighth. They trailed, 7-2, entering the seventh.

“You usually don’t win many of those,” manager Aaron Boone said, “but they just continued to battle.”

In the nightcap, the Yankees won, 5-2, in eight innings thanks to a dazzling major league debut by pitching prospect Deivi García, who allowed one unearned run over six innings, and a pinch-hit grand slam by Gary Sánchez, who was hitting .130 entering the day. The Mets fell to 15-19.

While the Yankees successfully used their deep pockets and savvy to overcome an MLB record of 30 different players landing on the injured list in the 162-game regular season last year, they have faced more of a challenge over the current 60-game season. Eight players were on the injured list as of Sunday, with relief pitcher Zack Britton and backup catcher Kyle Higashioka expected to return this week.

Infielder D.J. LeMahieu, the Yankees’ best all-around player last season, returned Saturday after missing 10 games with a sprained left thumb. But other important Yankees — infielder Gleyber Torres, starter James Paxton and outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge — will need more time. A key relief pitcher, Tommy Kahnle, is out for the year.

Judge’s injury, in particular, has proved troublesome for the Yankees, who revamped their health and performance staff in January. Although he begged not to go on the injured list this month, Judge did, and he missed nine games with a strained right calf. He lasted only six innings in his first game back, on Wednesday, before exiting with renewed calf discomfort. He was again placed on the injured list Friday with what Cashman called a lesser strain of the same calf.

Even though Cashman said three doctors had agreed on Judge’s original recovery time, it was considered a “failed rehab” because the outfielder was again dealing with the same injury. As a result, Cashman said Judge might need double the recovery time, or up to four weeks.

It probably did not help that Judge, with the minor league season canceled this year, could not test his calf in the minors before returning to the major leagues. But that is a reality faced by all teams in this pandemic-affected season.

The Yankees have been particularly affected by an inconsistent schedule over the last few weeks. Hitters and pitchers have said it has been difficult to get into any sort of rhythm. They had an unexpected five-day break because of coronavirus-related postponements and a rainout. Then came the weekend cramming, which strained their pitching staff. When Chapman lost Friday night, it was his first appearance in 11 days.

Given certain areas of weakness and the backlog of injuries, Cashman said the Yankees “could definitely use some help.” But he explained that the coronavirus crisis had introduced new elements into the Yankees’ decision making, and their rivals’, ahead of the trade deadline.

“It’s a risky marketplace,” he said.

With no fans expected in the stands across MLB, Cashman said there was “very little money to be had” by teams, thus making it harder to trade for proven players who are surely earning millions. Another factor, he said, was the expanded 16-team postseason, in which all teams will play a first-round, best-of-three-game series, thus increasing the odds of an early exit. And, he said, the pandemic was not over, so how much does a team want to trade away prospects and take on salary for as little as one month with so much uncertainty?

“There’s no guarantee that this season finishes, even though I think there’s a lot of optimism that we’ve gotten this far that we can get all the way through,” he said, adding later: “That risk-reward factor is certainly something we all are aware of.”

(The Yankees have one of the highest payrolls in MLB, but are also one of its most lucrative franchises.)

Whether or not the Yankees would bolster their roster by Monday afternoon, another hurdle awaited that day: They began a three-game series in the Bronx against the Tampa Bay Rays, who sit atop the American League East. Going into Monday the Yankees had won only one of their seven games against the Rays this season.

“Regardless of the playoff format, we’re circling everybody on the calendar this time of the year,” said pitcher Gerrit Cole, who was scheduled to start Monday. “We still feel like we have a lot of games left, but at the same time, every series is important.”

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