Everyone loves the underdog – the scrappy team that defies all odds to achieve success. By contrast, it’s understandable why some people dislike the Yankees, who have been consistently successful throughout their history. The Yankees are able to use immense financial assets that other teams could only dream of having. In some ways, the Yankees fan who cries “underdog” could not be further removed from the truth.
But in 2017, the Yankees were underdogs. And not only were they embraced as such by their loyal fans, but even by some of those Yankees haters out there. The Yankees, believe it or not, were likable to more than just their own fans. During SB Nation’s “Underdog Week,” let’s take a look back at the 2017 Yankees – the last true Yankees underdogs.
Keep in mind where the Yankees were at this point. They’d only played in one playoff game over the previous four seasons, and had begun to shed payroll and (gulp) rebuild. There weren’t high expectations for the 2017 Yankees – the Opening Day lineup featured a 3-4-5 of Greg Bird, Matt Holliday and Jacoby Ellsbury, and the team couldn’t even settle on a fifth starter out of spring training. It looked like another transition year.
However, the youth movement thrived with on-the-job training. Aaron Judge had flopped in a brief 2016 debut, but rebounded with an MVP-worthy 2017 en route to Rookie of the Year. Gary Sanchez followed his incendiary rookie year with another strong performance, Aaron Hicks became a regular, and Didi Gregorius developed into a power threat. On the pitching side of things, Luis Severino became the club’s ace, Jordan Montgomery was more than just a fifth starter, and Chad Green became a Swiss Army knife in relief. The oldest of these players, Hicks, was still just 27. The Yankees had found a new core.
It was more than just the kids – the Yankees’ veterans had renaissance years. Brett Gardner hit 21 home runs, CC Sabathia became a modern-day Andy Pettitte, and midseason acquisitions Todd Frazier and David Robertson fit in on the field and in the clubhouse. Indeed, there was something special about this team.
The Yankees were more fun than they had been since 2009, and unlike that year, no one expected them to compete this time around. From June-August, the Yankees went just 41-42, but a 30-20 start and a 20-9 finish propelled them to a Wild Card berth. Although they were expected to beat the Twins, they fell behind 3-0 in the first inning and it looked like another Wild Card loss.
Maybe another Yankees team might have rolled over. But the 2017 Yankees didn’t let anything faze them. They roared back to an 8-4 victory and earned a date with the Cleveland Indians, the No. 1 seed who had gone 102-60 and ripped off a 22-game win streak. The Yankees were a good story, but they didn’t stand a chance against these Indians. The tables had seemingly turned – for once, the Yankees weren’t the favorites in a postseason series against a small-market team.
It sure looked that way early on. The Indians took Game One 4-0, and stole Game Two as the Yankees blew an 8-3 lead and lost in 13 innings. But yet again, the Yankees rebounded when the deck was stacked against them. They took Game Three 1-0, Game Four 7-3 and Game Five in Cleveland 5-2, pulling off a reverse sweep after being down 2-0. Maybe there was something to this team’s thumbs-down-fueled mojo. One thing was for sure — the Yankees couldn’t be taken lightly anymore.
Still, the Yankees were underdogs again versus the Houston Astros. Although Houston won the first two games, the Yankees took the next three, one win away from an improbable trip to the World Series. However, the Yankees were outscored 11-1 in Houston over the next two games and saw their season end. Adding insult to injury, the Astros later admitted to illegally stealing signs during this series, meaning that the 2017 Yankees were ultimately stopped by an illegitimate champion.
The 2017 Yankees were never expected to win the games they won, but never gave up. They didn’t have the biggest payroll in baseball, instead relying on a mix of exciting young players and well-respected veterans that many believed deserved a shot at a ring. They didn’t achieve their ultimate goal, but certainly gave it all they could, earning a tip of the cap from the rest of baseball. The Yankees were back.
So, what’s happened since then? Less than two months after being eliminated, the Yankees, well, became the Yankees again. They traded for reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, footing a massive bill in the process. Two years later, they signed Gerrit Cole to the richest free agent contract ever for a pitcher. These were two moves that only the Yankees could make. Yankees fans saw them as the necessary measures to win a championship, while skeptics saw them as “buying their way” to stop a ‘drought’ of just 11 years, which admittedly pales in comparison to several other more tortured fanbases. As swiftly as they’d begun, the days of the Yankees being underdogs were over.
But, isn’t that the way it should be? As long as the Yankees are in contention and flexing their financial muscles, they never will be underdogs. However, for just one magical summer in 2017, the Yankees were MLB’s underdogs. Although they didn’t finish the job, their legacy will live on forever.