Throughout April, the 2021 Yankees have really known how to twist the knife in their fans’ hopes. They got knocked down and look completely lost? They bounce back with a couple promising wins. They look like they’re about to go on a run? They throw in another agonizing defeat to bring frustrations back to the previous level, all while continuing to sail under .500.
This series against the Orioles has offered all of that. After a lifeless Yankees effort against Matt Harvey on Monday to drop them to 9-13, they recovered with back-to-back breezy wins and looked poised to enter the upcoming homestand with the Tigers on a three-game winning streak. Instead, the offense threw in another dud, and despite a ninth-inning rally, the Yankees lost in the 10th by a 3-2 score. Instead of a second straight four-game series victory, Aaron Boone’s club could only salvage a split against one of the worst projected teams in baseball.
Jordan Montgomery got the start, and much like he did in Cleveland, he got off to an iffy beginning. Cedric Mullins led off with a single past third, and Montgomery just barely beat Austin Hays to the first-base bag on a bunt. Trey Mancini smacked one up the middle to drive Mullins in, giving Baltimore a 1-0 lead. Montgomery limited the production to one run with a couple grounders, but the Orioles nabbed the early advantage.
The Yankees struggled to get much going against Jorge López through the first four innings. They made decent contact against the Orioles’ righty, but he fanned three and held them to three hits through the fourth. It was a departure from their last outing against López, when he coughed up four runs in 4.2 innings.
In the fifth, however, the Yankees finally put a rally together. Brett Gardner singled to kick off the frame for just his second hit since April 11th. López battled DJ LeMahieu and nearly got him to struck out twice — first on a two-strike check-swing that was called a ball, and then on ball four, which barely missed the outside corner. That would’ve been a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play too, as Gardner was going from first and would’ve been tagged out on the stolen base attempt.
Instead, the Yankees were set up with runners on first and second, and O’s skipper Brandon Hyde replaced López with Adam Plutko. Giancarlo Stanton greeted him with a single to right that loaded the bases. Maddeningly, Torres and Gio Urshela did absolutely nothing with the golden opportunity, as the former popped up and the latter struck out on a terrible pitch.
All seemed lost, but Rougned Odor came up with a huge hit to right, putting the Yankees in front:
Odor is still under 10 hits through 15 games in pinstripes, but hell if he hasn’t made the scant contact count.
Montgomery settled down over the next few frames, though he gave up some hits here and there. Thanks to some well-executed pitches and timely defense, he kept the Birds off the board. Playing in a shift at second base, Gleyber Torres got Ryan Mountcastle to stop dead in his tracks between first and second on a double play in the third, and in the fourth, Clint Frazier made an excellent diving catch to rob the O’s of a chance with two men on and nobody out:
Montgomery threw a perfect fifth after the offense rallied to give him lead, but when he came back out for the sixth, Mancini greeted him with a game-tying bomb.
Chad Green was warming up, but it’s hard to blame Boone for not immediately going to him at the start of the sixth. Montgomery had pitched well since the first, he’d only thrown 71 pitches, and by turning to Green, Boone might have been needlessly asking for extra work from the ‘pen. Alas, the score was knotted at 2-2, and in came Green regardless. He needed just 12 pitches to retire the side in order.
It was now a battle of the bullpens, which should have played to the Yankees’ strength since their relief corps began Thursday with a 2.33 ERA and .577 OPS allowed on the season. That’s all well and good, but when your offense offers minimal backup, then there is no margin for error. Torres bounced into a double play to end the seventh against Travis Lakins Sr., and despite a leadoff walk to Gio Urshela, Paul Fry got the next three batters in order, including Aaron Judge in a pinch-hit appearance.
Green rolled over the O’s in the seventh, but they got their revenge against an old teammate in Darren O’Day. The sidearmer simply didn’t have it, as he walked Mullins on five pitches and gave up a sheer missile to Hays that rolled just shy of the left-center-field wall. Mullins scored all the way from first to put Baltimore in front, and Hays moved to third on the bad throw. Although O’Day returned to form and actually stranded Hays thanks to some weak contact, the Orioles had their lead.
César Valdez and his dead-fish changeup came in for the save, but he sandwiched walks to Mike Ford and LeMahieu around a called strike three on Gardner. At first, it appeared that his changeup might bail him out, as he fanned Stanton and jumped ahead of Torres, 1-2. Down to the Yankees’ last strike, Torres finally squared up one of Valdez’s slow offerings and slammed it into the gap:
The only downside to Gleyber’s huge hit was that it bounced over the wall, forcing LeMahieu to stay at third base even though he would’ve scored. The Yankees had to settle for a tie game, as Urshela lined to short to end the inning, but that had to be a good feeling for Torres, who entered Thursday with a .361 OPS in 26 high-leverage plate appearances in 2021.
Aroldis Chapman was dominant in the bottom of the ninth, but the Yankees quickly squandered another scoring opportunity during their first inning of Manfredball. With an automatic runner on second, Tyler Wade (who entered when Judge pinch-hit for Odor) couldn’t get a bunt down and inexplicably bunted for strike three — an utterly pointless at-bat for a dismal player. Aaron Hicks continued his miserable April with a weak comebacker, and after an intentional walk to Gary Sánchez, Ford struck out.*
*Ford received no help at all from the home-plate umpire, who called this awful 2-0 pitch a strike and changed the at-bat. But still. It’s Tanner Scott pitching. The Yankees’ offense can do better without officiating excuses.
The game came to a close in truly riveting Manfredball fashion. Pat Valaika bunted the automatic runner to third base and Mullins hit a walk-off sacrifice fly. It was as enthralling as watching a lecture on the specific internal components of lint.
Jonathan Loaisiga was tagged with the loss, but I can’t put the entire blame for this one at the bullpen’s feet. These are the New York Yankees. They have to score more than 3 runs in 10 innings against the Baltimore Orioles, who PECOTA projected for 99 losses. The ninth-inning rally was fun to watch, but it never should have come to that.
If the Yankees can sweep this upcoming homestand against the Tigers, then they’ll return to .500 at 14-14. Given that the Yankees are the Yankees and the Tigers are the Tigers, that shouldn’t be asking for too much, but maybe the secret to watching the 2021 Yankees — at least early on — is to have no expectations and be pleasantly surprised if they beat them.
Thankfully, Gerrit Cole will get the ball on Friday night at 7:05pm. The onus will be on the offense to score runs off rookie Tarik Skubal.