It started out like a disaster. Coming off an 84-win campaign and with a team that posted a negative run differential for the third time in four seasons, the Yankees had an Opening Day lineup that featured three players who had yet to play a full season (Gary Sánchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge) and had two starting pitchers under the age of 25 (Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery). Despite a strong spring training that saw them post a league-best 24-9-1 record, the Yankees were not expected by many to be a good team, myself included.
Five games into the season, and those expectations seemed to be validated. After Dellin Betances blew a lead in the seventh inning at Camden Yards on April 8th, the Yankees had fallen to 1-4, and boy, was it an ugly 1-4.
The starting rotation was a disaster, as Masahiro Tanaka gave up seven earned runs in fewer than three innings on Opening Day, Michael Pineda couldn’t make it out of the fourth three days later, and coming off the heels of an awful 2016, Severino coughed up four runs in five frames.
Sabathia was the only starter to put together an effective outing the first time through the rotation, but even then was only able to last five scoreless innings. Tanaka’s second outing, meanwhile, was better than the first, but pretty much by default: he gave up only three runs in five innings, but walked an uncharacteristically high five batters.
The starting lineup wasn’t much better. Of the Yankees’ trio of youngsters, Sánchez’s .490 OPS was the highest. The only regulars who got out to a hot start at the plate were Matt Holliday, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Chase Headley, none of whom were truly expected to be major building blocks. Furthermore, aside from Ellsbury, whos contract was unmovable, they profiled more as potential trade assets to flip at the deadline to augment what had become — thanks to Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres — the best farm system in baseball. Moreover, Sánchez found himself placed on the injured list with a strain in his right brachialis muscle. The season was only five days old, but it already looked over.
That feeling, however, changed in a heartbeat. By the next time the Yankees lost a game, ten days had passed.
After notching only two hits in his first five games, Judge put together three straight multi-hit games, homering once in each. They were the first three long balls of his Rookie of the Year-winning campaign:
Now batting in the fifth spot in the order (he batted eighth on Opening Day), Judge’s OPS had jumped over that eight-game winning streak from .388 to .917. Additionally, Austin Romine, filling in for the injured Sánchez, hit much better than anyone expected — his OPS was .955 — while Ronald Torreyes was not a complete black hole at shortstop (.643 OPS).
The pitching staff, meanwhile, had begun to settle down, holding opposing teams to four runs at most over the winning streak, and limiting the damage to two runs or fewer in three games. Furthermore, Severino began to show signs of being the top-of-the-rotation starter that he would become (at least, before injuries derailed his last two seasons). On April 13, he notched his first win of the season, keeping the Tampa Bay Rays to two runs over seven innings, striking out eleven and walking two.
In Severino’s next start, he was just as good, if not better, despite being tagged with the loss: although he gave up four runs (three earned), he struck out ten in eight innings without walking a batter. He would later finish third in Cy Young Award voting.
What began as an immense disaster soon became the start of an unforgettable season. Although the team ultimately fell just short of the World Series, it was filled with excitement, from Judge’s breakout campaign to a memorable playoffs that included an epic Wild Card win over the Minnesota Twins, three straight wins against Cleveland to complete the comeback in the ALDS, and a titanic battle with the Houston Astros that went seven games.
But on that Saturday in early April, none of us could see it coming.