‘This can’t be happening’
By Tyler Kepner
The New York Yankees set themselves apart. That is the whole underpinning of their brand. Of course, they have the most championships, but it’s more than that. No beards. No names on the jerseys. No losing seasons in decades.
That last one is in serious peril. The Yankees lost for the eighth game in a row Sunday, 6-5 to the Boston Red Sox in the Bronx. They are 60-64 this season, slipping ever closer to the first losing season for the franchise since 1992, the year Aaron Judge was born.
Judge came up in the ninth inning Sunday, two on and no outs. A big hit would win the game. Kenley Jansen struck him out on three pitches, then got Gleyber Torres, too. The Yankees fanned 14 times before Ben Rortvedt, batting .095, flied to center to end it.
“It’s a gut punch today, especially in the fashion we lost it,” said Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the Yankees’ third baseman.
Kiner-Falefa had scored what seemed to be the go-ahead run in the eighth, before replay overturned the call. The Red Sox broke the tie on a double by Justin Turner in the ninth.
“Getting swept by those guys is definitely tough,” Kiner-Falefa said, adding later, “This can’t be happening.”
But it is, and the Yankees have single-handedly made their patchwork rivals relevant in the wild-card race. Entering Tuesday the Red Sox were one game over .500 when they don’t play the Yankees and 8-1 when they do. At 66-58, Boston is alive.
The Yankees are an afterthought, their season now defined by the pursuit of mediocrity. They are ordinary, the very last thing they ever want to be. They lead the American League in attendance for the fourth non-pandemic season in a row, but their descent makes you wonder how much longer they’ll be in demand.
Boring doesn’t sell, and the Yankees cannot even pretend to be pushing for a pennant.
“We’ve got to be unbelievable the rest of the way,” manager Aaron Boone said. “So it’s not even about that. It’s about coming to try and win a game Tuesday. Then, all of a sudden, you start stacking, and an amazing thing happens. But we’re so far removed from that. We’ve got to get a win first.”
The Yankees’ eight-game losing streak is their longest since an eight-game skid in late August 1995. That team went 26-7 down the stretch to win the first AL wild card, with a quartet of precocious rookies — Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera — along for the ride.
What followed was unbelievable indeed: a dynasty that restored the shine to a tarnished Yankees crown. It’s easy to take today’s fan support for granted, but in the eight seasons before their postseason breakthrough (that is, 1987 through 1994), the Yankees drew fewer fans than the Minnesota Twins. A lot of Don Mattingly homers landed in empty seats.
This is not to suggest that one losing season will sour fans from supporting the Yankees next year. Recent history has actually been fairly compelling: The Yankees have reached the American League Championship Series five times since their last World Series title, in 2009. Losing all of those series has made this era more frustrating than fallow.
But the Yankees need a jolt, and the sugar rush of free agency — Shohei Ohtani, Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman — tends not to last. The Yankees’ payroll was $275 million or so on opening day, and much of it — Josh Donaldson, Aaron Hicks, Frankie Montas — has produced almost nothing.
The good thing, for Hal Steinbrenner, is that the Yankees now get $25 million by selling ad space on their uniforms to an insurance company. Teams are permitted to do this now, but they don’t have to. The classy move would have been to stay above it — the sanctity of the pinstripes and all that — but that’s not reality.
Not when a team can use the $25 million to effectively pay for, say, outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who is owed that much annually (for luxury-tax purposes) through 2027. Stanton was out of the lineup Sunday; he has hit .184 since the All-Star break last summer, striking out in one-third of his at-bats. (He flied out with two runners on as a pinch-hitter in the seventh.)
Stanton is one of five players, all in their 30s, who will cost the Yankees a combined $143 million — again, for luxury-tax purposes — in each of the next three seasons. The list also includes Judge, Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodón and DJ LeMahieu.
Younger players have had encouraging seasons, especially starter Clarke Schmidt and shortstop Anthony Volpe, both former first-round draft picks. But most of the “Baby Bombers” from the mid- to late-2010s — with Judge the big exception — never amounted to much, and when MLB.com ranked the farm systems after the trading deadline this month, the Yankees placed 21st overall, with no prospects among the top 75.
To be fair, the Yankees did not seem so utterly hopeless through much of this season. They were 10 games over .500 on July 4, and Rodón was about to come off the injured list after missing three months with a forearm strain. Even with Luis Severino struggling, it was plausible for the Yankees to contend with a strong bullpen supporting a rotation of Cole, Rodón, Schmidt, Néstor Cortes and Domingo Germán.
That group has disintegrated. Rodón — who returns Tuesday from another injury, to his hamstring — has a 7.33 ERA in six starts. Cortes, an All-Star last season, has pitched once since May because of a rotator cuff strain. Germán finished June with a perfect game, went winless in July and left the team in August to seek treatment for alcohol abuse.
And that’s just the pitching. The Yankees entered Sunday’s game with a .305 on-base percentage, which ranked 26th among the 30 teams, and a batting average of .230, ahead of only the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees have not hit so poorly as a team since 1968, when the mound was higher, pitchers batted and Mickey Mantle played first base.
Mantle’s former slugging teammate Roger Maris finished his career that season with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Yankees gave out bobbleheads of Maris on Sunday, commemorating his 61-homer season in 1961. They’ll have a similar promotion next month for Judge, who broke Maris’ AL record with 62 last season.
That seems like a long time ago, a time of excitement and hope and a last-place team in Boston, not the Bronx. Now the Red Sox routinely stamp the Yankees — or, as Boone put it, more or less: They kick their butts.
“We’ve played a handful of competitive games that have come down to the end where they’ve taken us,” Boone said. “We just haven’t been good enough.”