'We need a spark': New York Yankees battling to keep a slide from becoming a spiral

ByJoon Lee ESPN logo
Thursday, August 18, 2022

NEW YORK -- When injured outfielder Harrison Bader walked into the Yankees' clubhouse for the first time on Aug. 3, he couldn't help but wonder what his new teammates were thinking.

"I'm sure everybody in here was like, 'We just traded for this guy in a boot?'" said Bader, who despite dealing with plantar fasciitis was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals at the deadline. "'Are you serious?'"

That sense of unease is the mood in the Yankees' clubhouse these days. The Yankees still sit comfortably atop the American League East standings, but dark clouds loom over the Bronx -- and urgency is growing.

A month and a half ago, it was hard to find anyone in the locker room without a smile on his face. Aaron Judge was hitting moonshots at a record-breaking pace. Clay Holmes and Michael King were the best reliever duo in baseball. Matt Carpenter was putting together a comeback campaign for the record books. Giancarlo Stanton was hitting lasers into the Yankee Stadium bleachers. Nestor Cortes and Jose Trevino were breaking out with All-Star campaigns. New York's hot start made it the third-fastest team in franchise history to win 50 games in a season, recalibrating expectations for the 2022 Yankees to not just win a World Series, but do it in historic fashion.

Then those expectations crashed, hard. The Yankees are 4-11 in their past 15 games and 17-24 since July 1, worse than the rebuilding Chicago Cubs and the last-place Oakland Athletics over the same stretch. New York is looking up at the Houston Astros, who now have the best record in the American League heading into the stretch run.

In six short weeks, the good vibes have vanished. And Gerrit Cole knows it.

"We need a spark," Cole said after the Yankees' series-opening loss to the second-place Tampa Bay Rays on Monday.

Two nights later, they hope they found one. Maybe Josh Donaldson's walk-off grand slam Wednesday could ignite a flame. Whatever it is, they'll need it as the team begins a critical four-game series against the division rival Blue Jays on Thursday followed by the home half of the Subway Series against the Mets.

Around the clubhouse, players are focusing more attention on details in recent weeks, trying to find solutions for the team's sudden inability to score runs, but also causing some players to press at the plate.

"You can get in your way a little bit," said Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who had his share of slumps as a player. "It can wear you down and whatever, pressing, all that. I got to that place a couple times where I don't care, I'm going to be ready to go. For me, a little bit of a rock bottom, that freed me up quite a bit."

After they entered August as the top offense in baseball, scoring 551 runs while hitting .245/.331/.444, the Yankees' production has fallen off this month. With Stanton and Carpenter both now on the IL, the team ranks 24th in runs scored in August with just a .220/.299/.376 line.

This has coincided with a pitching staff that has struggled in recent months. Prior to July 1, the Yankees ranked No. 1 in staff ERA at 2.92. Since then, they're 19th, at 4.03, with the starters' ERA rising from 3.05 to 4.37 and the bullpen ERA rising from 2.71 to 3.51.

Heading into the All-Star break, the Yankees held a 13-game lead in the division and had the best record in baseball. That cushion affected the team's mindset.

"We had that lead and we were able to play some things kind of conservative with injuries and whatnot," said Holmes, who landed on the IL this week after blowing four of his past five save attempts. "We're not playing our best baseball. I do think there will come a time when that sense of urgency will come back. Maybe that's that spark [Cole]'s talking about."

The Yankees' roster moves over the past few weeks indicate a team searching for a solution. The team traded struggling slugger Joey Gallo to the Dodgers, as well as left-hander Jordan Montgomery to the Cardinals for Bader, a defense-minded outfielder, on deadline day. Earlier in the week, they'd added outfielder Andrew Benintendi from the Royals and Frankie Montas from the Athletics. This week, in an effort to shake things up, the Yankees called up some young energy from the minor leagues, bringing in utility man Oswaldo Cabrera and outfielder Estevan Florial from Triple-A ahead of Wednesday night's win.

Boone said he is trying to create an environment where things feel like "business as usual."

"You try and get them as acclimated and comfortable as possible in the surroundings," Boone said of the new arrivals. "No one's expecting or counting on them being the revelation that turns us around. Yeah, sure, we want that spark and get things going offensively, but they're here because they've earned their way here."

But the changing environment has been affecting the clubhouse. Reliever Michael King spent three weeks away from the team after undergoing surgery due to a fractured right elbow and noticed a difference. The recent roster turnover -- with injuries, trades and roster call-ups -- contributed to an atmosphere very different from when the team was cruising at a historic pace in the early part of the season.

"It just creates a different mojo in the locker room. Once we get used to it, we end up rolling, but you just have to get used to it," King said, who decided to rehab with the team to help rebuild team chemistry. "We add three new faces to the team at the trade deadline, we lose guys and then there's turnover that makes the whole clubhouse not uneasy, but different. We have to learn the new guys and keep rolling."

Starting pitcher Jameson Taillon said the team is looking to players like Judge and infielder DJ LeMahieu to reset the tone in the clubhouse.

"They know not to overreact to something like this," Taillon said. "As long as we keep going out there and keep giving it our best. ... I think everyone's trying to pull their weight. You don't want to overreact and overstress, and it all becomes something worse."

For Boone, rekindling his team's spark is about one thing.

"Points," Boone said. "We just need to score right now."

Judge is confident.

"We've got a lot of great ballplayers here that have a great track record," Judge said. "We're going through a little stretch like this, but it's about how we come back out the next day and respond."

As the team tries to dig itself out of this slump that, amazingly, hasn't yet affected its playoff outlook in a more disastrous manner, Boone has been looking inward for optimism. He's thought back to the depths of 2002 and 2005, when he faced the biggest struggles of his playing career. Those ups and downs shaped the steadiness Boone brings to the clubhouse, which he hopes can bring the Yankees out of their funk.

"The season, it's a great life lesson," Boone said. "It's 162. That's a lot like life. Dealing with the highs and lows, the difficulty. The good ones are able to find their way."

There are signs of life, that things will not spiral into disaster. When the Yankees made a miraculous extra-innings comeback on Wednesday with the Donaldson's walk-off grand slam, it felt like a breath of fresh air.

"There was a release of some joy," Donaldson said, "and frustration."

For Boone, the moment served as evidence that the team can bounce back -- and that maybe this Yankees team will find its way again.

"At the core, we know it's a confident group," Boone said. "We've got to focus and grind and get through it."

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