Sunday, May 14, 2023

Rising Out of the AL East Cellar...


Aaron Judge & Friends (Photo Credit: @Yankees via Twitter)

Yanks move past Red Sox to shake division-worst label…

The World always seems to be a little better when the New York Yankees win. Before the start of the latest series with the Tampa Bay Rays, it kind of felt like this might not be the Yankees’ year. Injuries have derailed what should have been the AL East’s best for the Yankees, while the Rays jumped out to a terrific start that put them as many as ten games ahead of our favorite team early into the season.

The Rays won the series’ opening game Thursday evening in convincing fashion, an 8-2 drubbing of Domingo German and the Yankees. With the win, the Rays became the first team to reach thirty wins in the Major Leagues this season. German was the luckless starter in the game. He did not pitch badly, giving up only one earned run, a total of two runs, in 5 2/3 innings. The bullpen, behind Ron Marinaccio, Albert Abreu, and Ryan Weber, let the game get out of hand.

Despite the convincing victory, the game proved costly for the Rays. Rays starter, Drew Rasmussen, who had pitched seven strong shutout innings, yielded only two hits and kept all Yankees out of scoring position to pick up the win, was placed on the 60-day Injured List. He was diagnosed with a flexor strain in his forearm. Although he will not require surgery, he has been shut down from pitching for two months. Tough break for the Rays. We wish Rasmussen the best for a speedy recovery. As I always like to say, to be the best, you must beat the best, and the Rays are better when Rasmussen is pitching.

The Yankees needed to make a statement in this series if they intend to make noise in the AL East. Yes, it is still early in the season, but we are reaching the point where wins and losses make a difference later in the season. Losing the first game of the series was ‘not what you want’, yet the Yankees came back to take the next two games as the series prepares to conclude later today that could either give the Yankees a tremendous three-to-one series win…or a disappointing two-game split.

Friday night’s win was huge. It always seems like the Rays score first in their games with the Yankees and Friday was no exception when Randy Arozarena belted a first-inning home run off Gerrit Cole. Rizzo tied the game in the bottom of the first with his shot to right. Cole gave up another home run in the second inning (so much for the thought that he had overcome the tendency to give up dingers this season after last year’s disaster). It set the stage for Anthony Volpe to be the hero. Dropped in the batting order, his fifth-inning homer tied the game, and his run-scoring single in the seventh put the Yankees ahead. Oswaldo Cabrera added an insurance run on a line drive to right field, but he ended the inning prematurely when he was thrown out trying to stretch the single into a double.

Sadly, the lone insurance run was not enough. A three-run home run by Josh Lowe in the top of the eighth inning put the Rays ahead, 5-4. Not to be denied on his bobblehead night, Anthony Rizzo belted his second home run of the evening after Aaron Judge had walked in the bottom of the eighth. 

Anthony Rizzo (Photo Credit: @Yankees via Twitter)

The two runs were enough to give the Yankees an improbable 6-5 victory, aided by a clean ninth-inning save by Wandy Peralta.

Saturday, I cannot say I was optimistic when the Rays jumped out to a 6-0 lead, highlighted by scoring five runs off Nestor Cortes, Jr. in the fifth inning, which included a Yankee Stadium-silencing grand slam by Yandy Diaz.  Thankfully, Aaron Judge decided to match Rizzo’s performance from the night before and his two home runs helped the Yankees overcome the deficit, the second homer put the Yankees ahead, 7-6. Oswaldo Cabrera, who saw his insurance run erased on Friday night, added two insurance runs that held up this time when he hit a two-run single in the bottom of the sixth after Judge’s second home run had given the Yankees the lead.  DJ LeMahieu’s slide at home with his hand reaching the plate before the catcher could get his glove down, scoring the second run, was a thing of beauty. The Rays scored a couple of funs to make it interesting, but Wandy Peralta picked up his second save in as many days to give the Yankees the come-from-behind victory. A sweet victory a week after the Rays had done the same against Gerrit Cole and the Yankees.    

(Credit: @Yankees via Twitter)

I am worried about Nestor Cortes, Jr. With the debut of Carlos Rodón in Pinstripes delayed indefinitely, and Luis Severino working his way back through rehab starts, the Yankees have had to rely upon Nasty Nestor more than they should have. With his struggles facing lineups the second and third time around, there is the question of whether Cortes will need to spend some time on the Injured List too if the hamstring injury at the start of Spring Training has continued to affect his performance through the shortened preparation for the regular season. Severino should be able to make his season debut soon, but I was (am) hoping he would (will) be replacing Clarke Schmidt and not Nestor. Hopefully, this is an unfounded fear and Cortes will show improvement in later innings as the season progresses.

The two wins put the Yankees in a position to win the series against the Rays this afternoon. Of course, Clarke Schmidt is pitching so it lessens the optimism but if the Yankees can beat a great pitcher like Shane McClanahan yesterday despite spotting him a six-run lead, the Yankees can win with Schmidt on the mound. He will be opposed by former Philadelphia Phillies starter Zac Eflin, who signed with the Rays as a free agent in the off-season. 

The Yankees’ win yesterday, coupled with a loss by the Boston Red Sox, allowed the Yankees to slip past the Red Sox in the AL East standings. The Yankees (23-18) are only a half-game up on Boston (22-18) so the cellar escape could be short-lived. Yet, it is a first step “upward” and if the Yankees can get back to winning series again, they can make further gains as the inevitable “stumbles” hit every team eventually. Getting Luis Severino back soon and hopefully, Giancarlo Stanton by month-end will be huge pickups for the team. You can add Josh Donaldson to the mix but frankly, I have not missed the guy. 

The Yankees are a game behind the Toronto Blue Jays, two in the loss column. It is hard to look much further than the Jays. Despite Tampa’s hot start, I continue to believe the Jays are the team to beat in the division. Surprisingly and despite their struggles, the Yankees have a better record than every team in the AL Central. Only one team in the AL West, the Texas Rangers (24-15), is better than the Yankees. As things stand now, in a way too early view, the Yankees hold the final Wild Card spot. While the Yankees’ struggles have been magnified by the media, not much is said about the Houston Astros and their 20-19 start. 

Luis Severino Update

Since beginning his rehab assignment, Luis Severino has started one game for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Earlier this week, Severino threw forty-nine pitches in 3 1/3 innings of work. He surrendered two hits, including a home run, but was optimistic about the overall performance. He felt all his pitches were working. He is scheduled to suit up for the Double-A Somerset Patriots on May 16 to pitch against Reading.

Luis Severino (Photo Credit: @swbrailriders via Twitter)

Severino is expected to be activated either later this month or early June. There is some talk that he could be activated after the upcoming game, but it seems like he will need more time to build up his stamina. The Yankees cannot afford for Severino to stumble deep into games like Cortes is currently doing. When Sevy comes back, he will be viewed as the second-best starter in the rotation. He must pitch like a solid #2 starter for the Yankees to succeed since Rodón will not be helping anytime soon. Cortes has not been “that guy” even if he was the best starter last season. Gerrit Cole and a bunch of struggling starters are not the right answer for long-term success despite Cole’s greatness.      

I am happy that Severino is nearly ready. Hopefully, the comments about his frustrations with how the Yankees have handled him are overblown. Sevy can help the Yankees overcome their slow start, and I hope his Yankees career extends beyond this season. I think Sevy understands the business side of baseball and sees the value of staying in Pinstripes.

Outside of bringing in the Brinks trucks to lure Gerrit Cole to the Bronx, the Yankees have not proven to be adept at bringing in elite starting pitchers, either through trades, free agency, or the farm system.  Okay, I should qualify that…healthy elite starting pitchers. They seem very good at picking the unhealthy ones.

The Invisible Man Makes an Appearance

Ben Rortvedt has been a Yankee since March 2022, yet there is not much visual evidence to support his presence. Injuries have held back the man who was intended to be Kyle Higashioka’s catching partner, which led, of course, to the acquisition of the invaluable Jose Trevino.

There may still be hope for Rortvedt in Pinstripes. He was recently activated off the Injured List and optioned to Triple-A. He contributed a walk-off three home run on Saturday afternoon, leading the RailRiders to an 8-6 victory over the Omaha Storm Chasers. Not known for the long ball, Rortvedt has homered in two consecutive games. 

Ben Rortvedt (Photo Credit: Kirsten Peters)

I am happy for Rortvedt and genuinely would like to see him succeed. It seems that it will take an injury to Trevi or Higgy to earn the Major League promotion, yet he can position himself to be ready for the call when/if it happens. The power to succeed is his. 

Happy Mother’s Day!

As always, Go Yankees!

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