They tossed footballs and told jokes. They dropped those footballs and made jokes about that, too. Gerrit Cole picked up the football and pretended to punt it into the stands.
But other than a spring dose of Baltimore’s stifling summer heat, nothing seemed to be pressing down on them like it has once fans are in the stands and the lights are on — or like it has when the fans leave and the lights go off, night after night, leaving the Yankees wondering how to make tomorrow better. The Yankees looked like any other team, just as likely to fall into a slump as anyone — and just as likely to come out of it, too.
The Yankees, of course, are not just any other team. Their blessing and curse, entrenched but no less daunting for the familiarity, is that they play under unparalleled scrutiny and expectations, both of which have descended on them with abandon as they have started 11-14 and in a tie with the Orioles for last place in the American League East.
For the Yankees, a slow start requires a rare April news conference from GM Brian Cashman, requires taking accountability, requires giving a public vote of confidence to his manager, Aaron Boone. For the Yankees, small sample sizes never seem to feel small enough to discount. For the Yankees, any bad day is one too many. Four weeks of anemic offense, then, can seem like four years.
That Yankees offense, reliant on the home run and plenty of sluggers, is built to power the team through defensive shortcomings or pitching inconsistencies. Their lineup includes deep threats such as Aaron Judge and Stanton and starts with a guy who has won a batting title in both leagues, DJ LeMahieu. Instead, that offense owns an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of just .679, squarely in the lower half of the majors, with a similarly meager slash line of .216/.310/.369.
Boone and his players have not been shy about admitting they are “probably pressing a little bit.” World Series expectations create that reaction. But most teams, even those with the highest of expectations, didn’t watch their fans throw beers on the field after a particularly ugly mid-April showing against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“It’s been frustrating, obviously. We’ve got a really good team. We’ve got a really good offense,” longtime Yankee Brett Gardner said this week. “ … It’s just important to keep working and know that we’re obviously better than what we’ve showed.”
Almost every hitter in their lineup entered this week slumping, some more than others. From Stanton to Gleyber Torres to Judge and Aaron Hicks, almost no one is hitting on pace with their career norms. Catcher Gary Sánchez is losing playing time to backup Kyle Higashioka because he simply isn’t hitting. Even LeMahieu, as slump-proof a hitter as exists in the majors, was 2 for 20 at one point before breaking out somewhat in the series opener against the Orioles.
Asked this week about LeMahieu’s struggles, Boone suggested the player was being “a little less selective” than normal, rolling over pitches instead of waiting and taking them the other way. That habit is a classic baseball symptom of pressing.
In addition to signs of batter’s box anxiety, the Yankees have also been afflicted with orthopedic maladies. First baseman Luke Voit is on the injured list. Judge has missed time intermittently with vague symptoms (the latest: “lower-body soreness”) Boone insists are not a bigger issue.
At the same time, the Yankees have the second-lowest batting average on balls in play in the majors despite having the leaders in average exit velocity, Judge and Stanton, at the heart of their order. Everyone besides Gardner is hitting below his expected batting average, according to Statcast. In other words, loath as armchair hitting coaches may be to admit, some of the Yankees’ early trouble is a product of bad luck.
Wednesday night, for example, LeMahieu took a close pitch on 2-2, then singled to right-center with a classic LeMahieu swing. Two pitches later, Stanton smashed a 119-mph one-hopper to third base — tied for the second-hardest hit ball in the majors all year. Maikel Franco not only fielded it cleanly, but he started a difficult double play. Two well-hit balls. One hit. Two quick outs.
Two innings after that, LeMahieu singled up the middle and Stanton ripped another one to the left side — 114-mph exit velocity this time (weak contact by his standards). This time, it bounced off shortstop Pat Valaika’s glove and into left for a hit. This time, Torres followed it up with a hit of his own. This time, Gio Urshela homered to drive everyone home. For the moment, it felt like things were starting to turn.
In some ways, many things did turn for New York in Baltimore this week, though the results didn’t necessarily illustrate it. Stanton came to life, going 9 for 18 with four runs scored, a double and a homer. He finished the four-game series with one RBI. LeMahieu reemerged, too, going 4 for 15 with four walks and four runs scored.
There are other reasons for optimism. Cole has been steady atop the rotation. Former Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber seemed to find something against the Orioles on Tuesday night, the first time all season he has pitched into the seventh inning after he missed much of the previous two seasons to injury. Jameson Taillon, similarly limited in recent years, is also showing signs of more consistent command and confidence amid a slow start.
Their bullpen has been strong. Voit is expected back soon. Yankees fans flocked to Camden Yards to cheer them on this week.
But as New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom can attest, pitching can only go so far if an offense can’t score. And the Yankees’ lineup banged into another wall of frustration Thursday in a 10-inning loss, failing to deliver decisive blows despite runners on in inning after inning.
Just like that, the weight of the world fell back on the Yankees’ shoulders. Mired in the depths of what qualifies as an April catastrophe for them, the Yankees finished an eight-game trip 5-3.
“Obviously, you go out on a road trip and you have a winning record like that, certainly that’s good, but we also know there was a game or two where one thing here or one thing there and all of a sudden it’s a special trip,” Boone said. “I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”