265 or bust! Yankees eye home run history in second half

NEW YORK -- Aaron Boone appeared annoyed by the question, one he'd fielded several times already during the opening half of his first season as a big league manager.

Can this team really thrive relying so heavily on home runs?

Arms raised wide above his head, shoulders shrugged, the New York Yankees skipper seemed perplexed, especially after his team had just laid an 11-run, six-homer drubbing on the rival Boston Red Soxto seal a series win earlier this month.

"Look," he acknowledged, "we have power."

They certainly do. As the Bronx Bombers open the season's second half, they're on pace to breeze past the 1997 Seattle Mariners' single-season mark of 264 home runs. Through 95 games at the All-Star break, the Yankees already have hit a major-league-leading 161, putting them on track to tally 274 long balls by season's end. At the same point in 1997, the Mariners had hit 148 homers -- 13 fewer than these Yanks.

"It's nothing to shoot for, but it's something cool," slugger Giancarlo Stanton said of the record. "At the end of the day, home runs help win games, too."

Although the Yankees' 62-33 first-half record wasn't enough to keep them atop the American League East standings -- they're4 games behind the red-hot Red Sox -- Stanton is right. Home runs have helped the Yankees pile up victories, putting them firmly in the early playoff chase with the second-best winning percentage in baseball.

Whether it'sAaron Hicks' three-homer breakout in the aforementioned rout of Boston on July 1, or All-Star rookie Gleyber Torres' early-May walk-off against Cleveland, or Stanton's own June game winner versus Seattle, Yankees homers have sparked multiple meaningful victories this season.

"A lot of times, mistakes that we get that we hit well get put in the seats," Boone said. "That's just how we're built. And I think that's a good thing."

Seven Yankees headed into the All-Star break with double-digit home run totals. Five of those have 15 or more, with a sixth, Gary Sanchez(currently sitting on 14), likely to join that group soon, as he returns Friday from the disabled list.

Two teams, the White Sox and Giants, don't have a single player with 15 home runs. Neither do the Orioles now, on the heels of the Manny Machado trade this week.

"They're one of the best offensive teams in baseball," Cleveland starter Corey Kluber said of the Yankees following a 7-4 loss to them last week. "The whole lineup, one through nine, there's no letdown from the leadoff hitter through the ninth inning.

"If you make mistakes like I did a few times, they took advantage of them and it cost us."

Kluber allowed six runs in that outing. He also gave up a pair of home runs -- to Brett Gardner(who'd later hit a second round-tripper off relieverTyler Olson) and Didi Gregorius.

"It makes me jealous because I'm not out there hitting all the home runs, too," joked Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier, who has split time in the majors and minors this season and is homerless in the bigs. "I've got [11] at Triple-A and I want to be part of it, but it's a really good feeling knowing that I'm on this side of the team and not playing against the guys."

New York's most prolific long-ball hitters this season are the two most obvious ones:Stanton (23 home runs) and fellow basher Aaron Judge (25). The sluggers led the National League and the American League in homers last season, with 59 and 52, respectively, when Stanton played for the Marlins.

But they've had a lot of help lately. After hitting just one homer in June, Gardner has four through 14 games in July. Greg Bird, who struggled early after beginning the first two months on the disabled list, has three home runs in his past six games.

"That's what you want from everybody," said Gregorius, who's third on the team with 17 taters.

With Torres on pace to hit 26 home runs, and Miguel Andujar on pace to hit 20, the Yankees could have a pair of 20-homer rookies for the first time in franchise history. The last organization to do that was the 2008 Reds, withJoey Votto and Jay Bruce.

The Yankees' slugging isn't a crutch -- it's strategic. Hicks, for example, looks to beat the shiftby getting the ball airborne.

"I feel like ground balls are kind of outs nowadays, especially with guys playing a shift on me," Hicks said. "Every now and then I'll take an opportunity to try and hit a ball through a hole. But I feel like my swing is better for the team if I'm not trying to hit ground balls through that hole, kind of trying to take my chances on driving the ball to the gaps and hitting more doubles."

That approach has led to more home runs, too. A year after hitting a career-high 15 homers in an injury-shortened, 88-game 2017, Hicks, in eight fewer games, already has a new career high of 16.

"It's a lot different the more games you play, the more opportunities you have to put up better numbers," Hicks said. "With the approach I have now, just being able to put the ball in the air, and taking my chances that way, it's all starting to show."

Stanton and Judge have been successful putting the ball in the air -- to the opposite field.

"You watch [Stanton] take batting practice, and his approach is to try to go that way," Boone said, referencing one of the hitter's pivotal opposite-field homers in a home win earlier this month. "Obviously in [Yankee Stadium], it's a good approach to have, especially as a right-handed hitter, if you have power and you can stay on it the other way. Guys like Aaron and Giancarlo, they don't have to get it all to ride it out the other way.

"That approach is a wise one, especially when you have power like him."

Eight of Stanton's 23 home runs have been hit to the opposite field. Ten of Judge's 25 have traveled in that direction.

But while setting the record would be great, the team's focus in the second half is to make the playoffs -- and then hit October out of the park.

"We don't want to be known as the team that could just hit the most home runs," Hicks said. "We want to be the team that hit the most home runs and won the World Series."
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