Just more than a quarter into this unusual 60-game season, this is where the Yankees stand: A 10-6 record, leading the American League East. They possess one of the most talented rosters and best records in Major League Baseball, and were leading the American League in runs and home runs as of Sunday afternoon.
Yet as they wrapped up a weekend trip to Florida to play the Tampa Bay Rays, there were a few reasons for concern.
On Sunday morning, the Yankees placed slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who was off to a rousing start to the season, on the 10-day injured list with a left hamstring strain. They made the roster move even before a magnetic resonance imaging examination was completed, a telling sign about the severity of Stanton’s injury.
Then, in the afternoon, the Yankees watched a promising start from pitcher James Paxton evaporate into a 4-3 loss against the Rays, their stiffest division opponent. It capped a closely contested four-game series loss to the Rays (8-8), who had been sputtering before facing the Yankees. All three of the Yankees’ losses to Tampa Bay were by two runs or fewer, and all of the games were tense: There were pitches thrown up and in, ejections and glaring or jawing at the other dugout.
“I know it’s a short season, but we’ll see them again and we’ll be fighting it out with them the rest of the way,” Paxton said.
Although the Rays have started slowly, in no small part to their shoddy defense and hitting, they showed the Yankees this weekend that they remained a feisty foe a year after they won 96 games, a handful short of the Yankees’ 103 victories. “I’ve been here a long time and they always play us tough,” Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said.
While the Boston Red Sox have long been the Yankees’ archrivals, of course, the Rays and Yankees have not been amicable opponents over the past few years, either. C.C. Sabathia, the longtime Yankees pitcher who retired after the 2019 season, was at the center of several brush-ups with the Rays over the years, including in 2018 when he hit Rays catcher Jesus Sucre in retaliation for Yankees catcher Austin Romine dodging a pitch near his head.
Aaron Judge, the Yankees star outfielder, said on Saturday that the past episodes were still on their minds when they watched Rays pitchers, again, challenge his teammates, like D.J. LeMahieu and Gio Urshela, with pitches high and tight. The Yankees voiced their displeasure with the aggressive pitching in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, which resulted in hitting coach Marcus Thames being tossed by the home plate umpire Vic Carapazza, who also ejected Yankees Manager Aaron Boone for defending Thames.
“We’re just trying to do everything we can to win the game, and that’s kind of where I’ll leave it,” Rays Manager Kevin Cash said before Sunday’s game.
For the Yankees, their formula for winning in this shortened season mirrors that of last season: One of the highest scoring lineups in baseball and a stout bullpen covering for an inconsistent starting rotation.
Entering Sunday, the Yankees’ bullpen had a 3.49 E.R.A., 11th-best in baseball. That counted as an accomplishment given the absences of star closer Aroldis Chapman, who is working his way back after testing positive for the coronavirus on July 11, and Tommy Kahnle, a key reliever who had season-ending elbow surgery last week.
The starting rotation, on the other hand, had produced a 5.13 E.R.A., ranked 23rd in baseball, entering Sunday, despite strong performances from newcomer Gerrit Cole. The struggles of Paxton and J.A. Happ have been particularly problematic for the rotation. Paxton, who had back surgery in early February, showed diminished velocity and off-kilter mechanics in his first two starts of the season.
But against the Rays, the Yankees’ winning formula was sometimes out of whack. Facing a strong Rays’ pitching staff, the Yankees managed 14 runs in four games, squandering several fruitful scoring opportunities.
Paxton, though, looked much improved on Sunday. Although his velocity still wasn’t at his usual level — his fastball averaged 95 m.p.h. last season — it was up to around 92 m.p.h., a slight tick up from his first two starts. What was markedly better was Paxton’s command, and the movement of his fastball. He struck out 11 and allowed just one hit over six innings before it all unraveled in the seventh.
Paxton left pitches over the plate in the seventh inning to the Rays’ Mike Brosseau and Brandon Lowe, both of whom smashed home runs to wipe out the Yankees’ 3-0 lead. In the ninth inning, Zack Britton, who had not given up a run this season before Sunday, had a wild pitch, a walk and two hits, including a walk-off, run-scoring single to Michael Perez.
“A pretty frustrating day,” Britton said. He added later, “To be expected, close games against these guys.”
When the Yankees take the field again on Tuesday, back in the Bronx against the Atlanta Braves, they will be without one of their most valuable hitters, in Stanton. Their offense had featured some sputtering hitters so far — Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres — and some standouts — LeMahieu, Judge, Urshela and Stanton.
The Yankees had only used Stanton, who was coming back from a calf injury sustained during spring training in February, as the designated hitter on purpose — taking extra care to try to keep him healthy.
He also changed his body to try to avoid a repeat of 2019 in which he played in only 18 games. Stanton, who is listed at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, said he lost 20 pounds since last season in an effort to mirror the physique of the earlier, healthier years of his career. It was working: He looked like the 2017 N.L. M.V.P. version of himself, for whom the Yankees pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Marlins, hitting .293 with three home runs and nearly as many walks (10) as strikeouts (11).
But when the Yankees played Stanton in both games of a doubleheader for the first time this season on Saturday, he felt discomfort running to second base on a wild pitch in the second game. Boone said he hoped the Yankees would be able to continue to help Stanton, both in the short and long-term, to stay healthy.
“It’s going to be a tough loss however long he’s out,” Judge said. “But our motto, just like last year, is next man up. We’ve got a stacked team.”