Despite their recent struggles — relative struggles, to be clear — the Yankees woke up on Thursday morning with the very best record in Major League Baseball.
No other team had reached 30 wins nor possessed a winning percentage over .700. At 31-13, the Yankees were off to their best start since 1998, after they won their first of three straight World Series titles. For a team that entered 2022 with questions on whether it had improved enough to make a deep playoff run, the Yankees, through 1 / 4 of the regular season, had played like a championship contender.
But some cracks have begun to form. Entering a four-game series against the division rival Tampa Bay Rays that began Thursday in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Yankees had lost 4 of their last seven games. Only a blip on the radar for a marathon 162-game regular season, but a noticeable one.
Most important, though, are a series of injuries to key players piling up after a healthy begin to the yr. On Saturday, the longtime right-handed reliever Chad Green landed on the injured list with an elbow injury that may require season-ending Tommy John surgery. Since then, the Yankees have handled a slew of ailments, testing the depth of the team with the third-highest payroll in baseball.
Outfielder Joey Gallo, third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Kyle Higashioka all hung out this week on the Covid-19 injured list.
D.J. LeMahieu, the team’s versatile infielder who was slowly looking more like his old self after an injury-plagued 2021 season, has been sidelined with a left wrist injury. He underwent a magnetic resonance imaging examination on Tuesday and received a cortisone injection for the discomfort. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone told reporters that LeMahieu was considered each day.
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“Loosen up, all right? Don’t attempt to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls, it’s more democratic.”
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A few of LeMahieu’s teammates, though, will need more time. The hard-throwing lefty closer Aroldis Chapman, whose command on the mound had been inconsistent, landed on the 15-day injured list on Tuesday with left Achilles tendinitis. A day later, the important thing right-handed reliever Jonathan Loáisiga, also within the midst of a skid, joined Chapman on the I.L. with right shoulder inflammation.
Then a way more alarming injury occurred, with outfielder Giancarlo Stanton being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the course of the Yankees’ 7-6 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday with what the team initially called a calf strain.
After an M.R.I., the Yankees placed Stanton, who has struggled with injuries in his Yankees tenure but is leading the team in R.B.I. on this season, on the 10-day I.L. His injury designation was modified to inflammation in his right ankle.
“I just feel like that is something that’s going to be short, but feel like we should always knock it out and never mess with it and possibly it becomes something else,” Boone told reporters of Stanton’s injury. “So hopefully, he got out in front of it just a little bit, and hopefully it’s just 10 days and he’s back.”
Stanton’s presence within the Yankees’ lineup can be missed: He was hitting .285 with 11 home runs and an .862 on-base-plus-slugging percentage — all second on the team to Aaron Judge.
While Judge has had a unprecedented begin to the season, even he cannot carry a lineup alone. And thus the Yankees could have to search out answers elsewhere on their roster as they enter a tougher a part of their schedule following a recent stretch against several teams with winning percentages under .500, corresponding to the Kansas City Royals, the Texas Rangers and the Orioles.
They need to face a much tougher task against the Rays, who won the American League East in each of the previous two seasons but entered this series with a record of 26-17, 4 and a half games behind the Yankees. Including Thursday, 23 of the Yankees’ next 29 games are against teams with winning percentages above .500, corresponding to the Los Angeles Angels, the Minnesota Twins, the Houston Astros and the Rays.
Higashioka and Gallo returned to motion in recent days but they’ve contributed more with their gloves than their bats this season. Donaldson — whose one-game suspension for “disrespectful” comments to Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson stays under appeal — could also be back soon.
On the lookout for other reinforcements, the Yankees signed Matt Carpenter, a three-time All-Star infielder, to a serious league contract on Thursday. Carpenter, 36, spent 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, struggling on the plate in his final three seasons. He signed a minor-league cope with Texas over the winter and hit .275 with six home runs in 21 games with their Class AAA affiliate, the Round Rock Express, before he was granted his release last week.
Despite being hit even harder by injuries than the team’s offense, the Yankees’ strongest unit this season has been its pitching staff. Chapman, Green and Loáisiga are all out, joining the left-handed reliever Zack Britton and the right-handed starter Domingo German on the I.L., but entering Thursday, the Yankees were third within the majors in E.R.A. (3.00) because of crucial contributions from the breakout starter Nestor Cortes (1.80 E.R.A.), the versatile Michael King (2.96) and the fill-in closer Clay Holmes (0.38).
On Thursday, the Yankees added a well-recognized face as a reinforcement: Manny Bañuelos, 31, a former top prospect who, a decade ago, was one in every of the Killer Bs alongside Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances — a bunch that was expected to be the longer term of the franchise’s pitching staff. Only Betances changed into a bona fide major leaguer, developing right into a four-time All-Star setup man before a series of injuries sidelined him over the past three years.
Following many ailments of his own, and a winding path that included stops throughout the most important and minor leagues, Mexico and Taiwan, Bañuelos signed a minor-league cope with the Yankees over the winter and posted a 2.35 E.R.A. over nearly 31 innings at their Class AAA affiliate. After J.P. Sears tossed five scoreless innings on Wednesday in his first major-league start, the Yankees needed a fresh arm and called up Bañuelos. His next major-league appearance could be his first for the Yankees.
Carpenter and Bañuelos may seem to be unlikely fill-ins for a team with a payroll just in need of $250 million, but in the event that they might help bridge the gap until the team’s regulars return they may have done their jobs.
“You bought to have the ability to weather the storm and produce other guys step up in several situations,” Boone told reporters of his team’s injury woes on Wednesday. “Sometimes it’s briefly spurts. Sometimes, it’s longer. That’s a part of the grind of the 162-game season. We’re prepared to handle that, we sit up for handling that. The season doesn’t stop for anyone.”