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Down, but not out: A pair of summer streaks got struggling Yankees squads into the postseason

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Can the Yankees avoid an early fall break by following in a pair of predecessors’ footsteps?

New York Yankees

Already having blown through more than a third of the major league season, things look bleak for the World Series hopeful Yankees. They’ve committed more than half of a billion dollars across a trio of players on the wrong side of 30, and they’re still four games back from earning a chance to play in the Wild Card game at another club’s ballpark. While their recent skid might suggest that things are starting to slip away from the Yanks, they have more games left than they’ve played in the longest season of any major American professional sports. Still, if the Yankees are to make anything of their 2021 campaign, they’ve got to get going sooner rather than later.

In fact, they only need to look to their own past for examples of turning around even poorer campaigns. Despite having an offense even more stacked than their contemporary counterparts, the 2007 Yankees opened the season dropping 13 of their first 21 contests, and 29 of their first 50. After July 1st, the most recent edition of the Yankees without Brett Gardner still sat three games below .500, and 8.5 games back of Detroit for the only Wild Card spot.

Having made the playoffs in each of the past dozen seasons, with Joe Torre at the helm for 11 of them, the franchise wasn’t keen on snapping the second-longest postseason streak — active or otherwise — in baseball history.

In a season where Melky Cabrera and Johnny Damon were the only Yankee starters with an OPS+ worse than 100, and an offense stocked top to bottom with sluggers, the Yankees created more than twice as many offensive runs above average as any other major league club. Alex Rodriguez, who would earn his third and final AL MVP award that season, was responsible for most of their success at the plate.

A-Rod boasted a 9.4 WAR, a 1.067 OPS, and 54 homers, headlining an offense that still featured peak Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Robinson Canó. It’s almost unfathomable that they didn’t boat race the rest of the major leagues.

Somehow, their abysmal, fourth-worst in the majors defense, and below average, 18th-ranked pitching staff was able to undo much of that offensive firepower, especially in the first half of the season. However, by the season’s end, the Yankees had surged to the fourth-best record in the majors, but still trailed Boston by two games, earning them an automatic ALDS matchup against Cleveland.

CC Sabathia and company were able to limit the damage done by Yankee bats, while Chien-Ming Wang imploded to the tune of 12 earned across 5.2 innings in his pair of starts. The Yankees thus fell to Cleveland in four games.

At the mid-point of that season, before turning things around, a handful of members from the greatest comeback team in baseball history spoke on whether they thought the stumbling 2007 club could still make a deep run into the postseason when congregated at the annual Old-Timers’ Day game.

Coming off of a World Series win in 1977, the Yankees found themselves in a 14.5-game hole behind the Red Sox into July. Backed by the eventual Cy Young winner, Ron Guidry, whose 25 wins and 1.74 ERA each led the majors, the Yankees got red-hot, eventually catching Boston to force a 163rd single-elimination playoff game to determine the winner of the AL East.

Trailing in that game 2-0, Bucky Dent drilled one of the most famous homers in baseball history; his three-run homer over the Green Monster gave the Yankees a lead they never relinquished. Led by Guidry’s steadying presence, the Yankees cruised through the ALCS, beating the Kansas City Royals in three of four games to advance to the World Series.

Against the Dodgers, the Yankees fell down two games to none before ripping off four straight wins to become champs for the second straight season. Dent followed up his epic Game 163 performance by hitting over .400 in the World Series, leading all players with a 18.44 percent cWPA thanks to a cluster of clutch RBI, and earning the World Series MVP.

When comparing the 2007 club to their own 1978 world-beating edition, the handful of legends present were quick to admit the Yankees hadn’t played up to their standards early on, and expected that team to eventually turn things around as they did. However, they all noted that the pitching on the 2007 team paled in comparison to that of the 1978’s staff highlighted by Guidry, lights-out closer Goose Gossage, and 20-game winner Ed Figueroa.

Specifically, centerfielder Paul Blair noted, “Until they get their pitching staff doing the job they’re supposed to do they don’t have a chance ... They have to sustain long winning streaks. They don’t have the staff to do it.” Reggie Jackson bluntly tacked on, “We had better pitching ... We had great players and we were tough, but we had better pitching.”

The 2021 Yankees have all the offensive upside of the 2007 team, and the run preventing possibilities of that 1978 squad. Per the old-timers’ assessments of that ‘07 team, this year’s roster has ample talent on both sides of the ball to go the distance, even if they’re a ways away from putting it all together on the field. Before they can set their sights on the World Series, they’d best take care of tomorrow, at-bat by at-bat, and pitch by pitch, lest they conclude their season with a heartless, “1, 2, 3 ... Cancun.”