Could New York Yankees miss the MLB playoffs? They need to regroup soon

ByMarly Rivera ESPN logo
Monday, September 7, 2020

See you in October? The fallout of the New York Yankees' beating at the hands, bats and gloves of the Baltimore Orioles is one that appears to have started shifting the momentum in one direction, one in which the Bronx Bombers might be at risk of missing the MLB playoffs altogether.

The Yankees won 16 of their first 22 games. Securing a spot in a 16-team expanded postseason was all but a given for a team that had hammered 40 home runs and slugged a robust .487 as a unit. New York was living up to its star billing, mowing down opponents by scoring an average of 5.7 runs per game and hitting .294 with runners in scoring position.

But the team that was once the star of The Show is now merely a stand-in. In their present 5-13 skid, the Yankees' slumbering bats have hit just .203, with 18 home runs and an anemic .341 slugging percentage. Their average runs scored have dropped to 3.4 runs per game. Hitting with runners in scoring position now seems an insurmountable task, with their average dropping to a meager .186.

Brett Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee -- and therefore at times the de facto club spokesman -- acknowledged teamwide anger over their faltering fortunes.

"Unfortunately, a similar kind of question as a week or so ago and I'm going to give you the same exact response. Very frustrating," said Gardner, 37, who was drafted into the organization in 2005. "Disappointed in the way that not only I've played, but the way we've played as a team, and it's something we just have to pull out of. I think we've got, what, three weeks to go 'til the last day of the season? So we've got some baseball left, we're still in a position to obviously make the playoffs and hopefully attain our goal, which is to be the last team standing, but the way that we've played lately is not acceptable."

The Yankees' collective free fall started with a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays back on Aug. 18, and that was with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound. Tanaka, who allowed all six runs, said he was trying to make adjustments throughout the game, "but I really couldn't find it ... felt like I was off balance all night."

And that's exactly what the Yankees have been since the start of their ongoing slide: off balance.

"As a hitter, when you're going through a bit of a tough stretch individually, but even as a team, you gotta stay away from chasing the result. You gotta know what your plan is, be convicted with it, and go out there and have good at-bats," manager Aaron Boone said in addressing the Yankees' disappearing offense, which has dropped New York to third place in the AL East behind the Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. "And it starts with me. I've got to do a better job of creating that environment to where guys are coming in and getting the right things done. But we've all got to also step it up here. Obviously, the season's getting shorter and shorter, and we've got to find a way right now when it's difficult."

Tanaka happened to also be on the mound on Sunday as the Yankees managed to score just one run in a 6-1 loss to Baltimore to add more length and depth to their slide. With their offense held to just one run in back-to-back games, Yankees hitters combined for just four hits. The Orioles refused to be the AL East doormat in a series the Yankees might have taken for granted last year, and they proved it by taking three out of four, winning their first series against New York since the beginning of the 2019 season.

As things stand, the Yankees would be the eighth and final seed in the AL playoff field, and they're just two games clear of Baltimore. Falling out of the October picture, given New York's status as the clear AL favorite entering the season, would have been hard to fathom a couple of weeks ago.

Not having every man present and accounted for hasn't helped matters. The Yankees' injury issues this season have been well-documented. At one point, the team had 10 players on the injured list, a group that included Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres.

But a glance at both leagues shows crowded injured lists to be pretty much the norm and, when it comes to players lost, the AL East-leading Rays have arguably been hit harder than anyone. The bottom line? Some teams have overcome their injuries, and some teams, for a variety of reasons, have not. The Yankees are among them.

"Obviously we've got some guys out of our lineup and when you've got guys missing, other guys need to step up and pull their weight and try their best to fill in. I've been one of those guys that feels like they've relied upon a little more heavily than maybe we would have thought coming into the season, and I'm just disappointed that I haven't done better," Gardner said. "Disappointed that I haven't done more. It is a frustrating game, it definitely is, especially right now, but sometimes you just have to kind of take a step back, take a deep breath and hopefully find that reset button. We've got three weeks of baseball left, a very important three weeks, trying to take things one day at a time and get this turned around."

While it can't be ignored that injuries have been a significant factor, the Yankees' collapse has been induced by a veritable deluge of causes, rather than from a single reason or the absence of any single player.

The onus may have fallen on Gary Sanchez, increasingly the poster child for the Yankees' offensive struggles. Sánchez was benched on Sunday amid a disastrous 5-for-40 slump. Sánchez hit .130 and piled up an astonishing 48 strikeouts over 32 games, the third most through a player's first 32 games of a season in Yankees franchise history, behind Giancarlo Stanton (51 in 2018) and Tyler Austin (52 in 2018).

But the Yankees' offensive woes are not limited to Sánchez. The entire team is struggling considering expectations for its high-flying offense, delivering a mediocre .321 weighted on-base average (wOBA) on the season, "good" for just 15th in the majors, a far cry from last year's .346 that ranked third in MLB.

How do they move on from the negative momentum? Boone believes it all starts in Buffalo, as they face the young and fearless Blue Jays. And the next three weeks will continue to challenge the Yankees in every possible way.

"We've got to be in the mindset that tomorrow's an important day. We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us. I do think that's crystal clear, not only with myself but our entire team," Boone said. "The opportunity still that lies in front of us, that's very much attainable and very much in our grasp. But we gotta go play well. And if we play well, with our group, I'm confident that we'll get to where we need to be.

"But it starts with playing well [Monday]," Boone said.

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