With the Yankees’ season in the books, but baseball still being played, we’re faced with an unexpected abundance of time to look back on the year before moving on to our normal offseason coverage. On the docket for today: remembering the worst Yankees moments of 2021. Given the disappointing end to the their campaign, and the overall disappointment of their season as a whole, we have an extensive trove of ignominy to choose from.
It was difficult to define what exactly counted as a “moment” for consideration. I was on the fence about whether to include the most troubling season-long trends, including the myriad baserunning blunders, the shoddy defense, and the general offensive underperformance outside of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. In the end, I decided to narrow the time frame to individual games, series, or distinct stretches during the year. With that, let’s recap the five worst moments of the Yankees’ season.
5. Getting swept by the Tigers
This Yankees team was one of the streakiest in recent memory. At their best, they looked invincible, evidenced by their 13-game winning streak in August. At their worst, it felt like every night they found a new way to lose a game. File this one under the latter category.
The nadir of the first half came as May turned over into June. Only a week prior, they were riding high, coming off consecutive sweeps of the Rangers and White Sox that featured a Corey Kluber no-hitter in Arlington. Things turned south against the Blue Jays, as they dropped two of three, a portent of things to come.
The Bombers flew into Detroit expecting an easy series win against the last place Tigers. Instead, they lost all three games in different yet equally embarrassing fashions. They took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 10th inning of the first game, but Justin Wilson surrendered a Robbie Grossman walk-off home run. In the next game, they managed only one run on three hits in a 6-1 humiliation. To cap things off, they dropped the final game 6-2, with the Tigers scoring four runs in a three-error third inning.
The Yankees would win only two of their following six games, culminating in a sweep at the hands of the Red Sox, to fall to fourth in the division.
4. COVID-19 outbreak
Coming back from the All-Star break, the Yankees suffered their second COVID-19 outbreak of the season. Aaron Judge, Jonathan Loáisiga, Néstor Cortes Jr., Gio Urshela, Wandy Peralta, and Kyle Higashioka each missed at least a week on the COVID IL, with reports suggesting that at least one of them was unvaccinated. This was shocking news, considering there were two compromised individuals in the clubhouse — Aaron Boone underwent an emergency pacemaker implant surgery earlier in they year while Phil Nevin had his own scary bout with COVID. It still amazes me that people are content to put their own personal beliefs above the safety of others around them.
3. The Luke Voit situation
The Yankees’ trade for Anthony Rizzo a day before the deadline came out of left field. There were no rumors linking the two parties, with many expecting the Red Sox to make a move for the former Chicago first baseman. However, the deeper you look, the more the move makes sense — his lefty bat balanced a righty-dominant lineup and his Gold Glove-caliber defense at first helped compensate for the defensive deficiencies at other places around the diamond. Most importantly, he filled the void left by Luke Voit, himself in the midst of a 27-game stint on the IL.
Many wondered whether Rizzo’s acquisition and Voit’s recurring injury issues spelled the end of the latter’s Yankees tenure. However, when Rizzo missed over a week on the COVID-10 IL in mid-August, Voit stepped back into a starting role and helped propel the Yankees during their torrid post-deadline stretch. Voit was not shy in reminding everyone why he had earned the starting first base role in the first place.
Voit spoke with a candidness not often seen in Yankees players’ public comments. Is it therefore a coincidence that he was effectively squeezed out of the lineup right after speaking so openly? We’ll never know if his subsequent benching was punishment — the Yankees certainly will never admit to as much. They easily could have accommodated both Rizzo and Voit in the lineup, with Judge shifting to center and Stanton playing right field. Instead, Voit appeared in only 29 of the remaining 42 regular season games, starting only 16.
There are plenty of explanations for his sporadic play beside being in the doghouse. Maybe the Yankees didn’t feel comfortable using Judge and Stanton as the everyday center and right fielders. Whatever the case, Voit had the third-best wRC+ (133) on the team after Rizzo returned, yet found himself riding the pine more often than not. The Yankees sure could have used his bat down the stretch, and looking back one can’t help but feel that in benching Voit, they were cutting off their nose to spite their face.
2. Final series against the Rays
The Yankees entered the final series of the regular season needing only one win to guarantee a Wild Card berth. Instead, they lost the first two games by a combined score of 16-5, leaving their entire season essentially riding on Game 162 (technically they could have lost and played a tiebreaker Game 163, but, really, it shouldn’t have to come to that). In the end, they barely squeaked into the Wild Card Game with a 1-0 victory on a walk-off Aaron Judge infield single, which honestly is pretty emblematic of their anemic offense all season. As it turns out, the heroics in that Game 162 were only delaying the inevitable fate that would befall them two days later.
1. AL Wild Card Game loss
It’s hard to argue with selecting the game that ended the Yankees’ campaign as the worst moment of the 2021 season. It was not only that this game was the coup de grâce of the season, but the manner in which the Yankees lost that cements it as the worst moment of the season.
Yankees ace Gerrit Cole melted down to the tune of three earned runs before being yanked after only two innings. The bullpen, which was normally so lockdown throughout the regular season, gave up an additional three runs. The offensive malaise reared its ugly head, as they mustered only two runs, with the four-through-nine hitters going a combined 1-for-20 with eight strikeouts. And the cherry on top, third base coach Phil Nevin’s inexplicable send of Judge on a Stanton double. He was thrown out at the plate, knocking all the wind out of their sails and sealing their eventual demise.
Honorable Mention: Late-season home series loss to the Orioles
Good teams beat bad teams. It sounds like a truism, unless you’re the Yankees. The first week of September, the Yankees had a chance to gain ground in the division with a three-game home series against Baltimore. Instead, they dropped two-of-three to the last place Orioles. On the season, the Bombers only managed to go 11-8 against their usual AL East punching bag. For comparison, the division-winning Rays went 18-1. I’m not saying this disparity is the sole cause for Yankees’ deficit in the division ... but it certainly didn’t help.