The Yankees’ unexpected break is over. Now comes the cramming.
By James Wagner
The New York Yankees were scheduled to take the field Wednesday afternoon, against the Braves in Atlanta, for the first time in six days. Breaks in baseball, a sport meant to be played almost every day of the season, are not supposed to last this long. The 2020 season, though, is anything but normal.
For the second time this season, the Yankees, who entered Wednesday with a 16-9 record, had to pause their schedule for multiple days because of the coronavirus. After the Miami Marlins’ outbreak late last month, the Yankees spent two days in a Philadelphia hotel unable to play the Phillies, who were sidelined for a week because of their exposure to the Marlins.
Over the past weekend, the Yankees hosted workouts for their players at Yankee Stadium while New York Mets players and staff members were tested and quarantined. A Mets player and a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus last Thursday, which postponed the first installment of their annual subway series, a three-game set at Citi Field.
“I’ve actually been surprised we haven’t had more, honestly,” Yankees reliever Zack Britton said Tuesday of the interruptions to the team’s schedule.
As it turned out, they got another later that day, as their game against the Braves at Truist Park was postponed because of rain. A doubleheader was scheduled for Wednesday.
Completing an abbreviated 60-game season across 30 different cities during a pandemic was always going to be a challenge. The Cincinnati Reds, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Marlins and the Mets are the four teams in Major League Baseball that have dealt with positive cases since the season began July 23.
But now, because of the postponements, the Yankees — a team dealing with myriad injuries that they believe have arisen partly because of the condensed calendar — have even more cramming to do. Entering Wednesday’s twin bill, they were facing 22 games in 19 days, including four doubleheaders. Even with expanded rosters, that is a lot of innings.
This weekend at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees and Mets will make up two of last weekend’s postponed games, with a doubleheader Friday and another Sunday. Doubleheaders this season will mercifully feature seven-inning games.
“If you’re swinging the bat well, doubleheaders are the best thing to a ballplayer,” outfielder Aaron Judge said over the weekend.
Before he landed on the 10-day injured list on Aug. 14, Judge was indeed swinging the bat like one of the best hitters in baseball. But a right calf injury arose as Judge played both games of a doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays on the artificial turf at Tropicana Field. The doubleheader was one of the ripple effects from the Marlins’ outbreak.
Judge, who did not consider the injury serious, was expected to be back in the lineup for the Yankees in at least one of Wednesday’s games. Even though he told manager Aaron Boone he felt ready to be in right field in all of the team’s remaining 35 games, he said the Yankees might be judicious with his playing time in one of the coming doubleheaders.
Boone has tried to be conscientious about players’ workloads, but injuries are piling up again. In their 103-win regular season last year, the Yankees set a major league record by sending 30 different players to the injured list. Less than halfway through this season, they have outpaced themselves: 13 different players have landed on the IL, with 10, including Judge, absent before Wednesday’s action. Because of that, and the Aug. 31 trade deadline, the Yankees’ front office has been considering additions to the pitching staff.
James Paxton, who strained a muscle in his left forearm while on the mound last week, and shortstop Gleyber Torres, who strained left quadriceps and hamstring muscles while running to first base last week, were the latest to join the Yankees’ wounded. Both will be out for at least a few weeks.
One possible factor behind the rash of injuries, according to Paxton and Britton, who landed on the IL last week with a left hamstring strain: the short ramp-up period of three weeks leading into the truncated season.
“We didn’t get enough time at a lower speed to build up,” Paxton said. “And now you’re seeing, a few weeks into the season, guys are not fresh anymore and the tiredness is building up. We don’t have that base we normally have.”
Britton, who is the team’s union representative, said he had spoken with his counterparts on almost every other MLB team, and they too have noticed the higher rate of injuries. He believed the smaller, soft-tissue injuries might have been avoided during the gradual buildup of a normal six-week spring training leading into a traditional 162-game season.
(Several baseball and medical experts have expressed fears that the starts and stops of the year — a traditional offseason; spring training suspended on March 12 because of the pandemic; a three-month hiatus in which players were training mostly on their own; and a short period for summer workouts — increased the likelihood of injury.)
Torres felt otherwise. He said: “Players prepared really well during the quarantine. Myself, I prepared really well. I think it’s injuries that just happened. Right now, it’s time to prepare myself a little bit better and get a little bit stronger in my lower half.”
For the Yankees, though, the answer to their persistent injury question is made more complicated because they overhauled their health and performance staff, including hiring a noted high-performance trainer, Eric Cressey, in an effort to avoid a repeat of 2019. Britton spoke highly of the retooled staff and their new strategies, such as training players to be better athletes rather than training them specifically for their position.
“For them to implement these programs, it’s hard to do that with the season that we’ve had,” Britton said.
Under Cressey’s guidance, the brawny outfielder Giancarlo Stanton lost 20 pounds since last season and was performing well — until he landed on the IL with a left hamstring strain on Aug. 9.
Over the weekend, Boone noted that the overhaul of the Yankees’ health and performance staff was done in January, so there hadn’t even been a full offseason to work with players. Despite the current backlog of injuries, Boone said he remained confident in the people entrusted with the players’ health and training.
“When we look up in a few years, we’ll really start to see the dividends being paid,” he said.
For now, though, the Yankees must contend with returning safely from another stretch without games and a jampacked schedule, and remain watchful of their constantly moving target of health.