The New York Yankees entering a season with high expectations is nothing new. The franchise has began virtually every season for the past 27 years with a reasonable (or better) chance of playing postseason games. Yet despite reaching the postseason in 22 of the past 26 seasons, there have been Yankee teams that have underperformed initially, and in doing so, put themselves in the unenviable position of needing a late comeback in order to get October baseball on the schedule.
As you know, the 2021 Yankees are one of those teams. Although the final chapters of the story have yet to be written, this group has rallied to the extent that the prospect of October baseball in the Bronx is no longer a pipe dream. In that vein, let’s look at a few other Yankee clubs that have overcome some early to mid-season struggles to give us fans some October baseball, and where each team was on this date in their rollercoaster seasons for perspective.
The Yankees entered 1995 on the heels of a 1994 campaign in which they had the best record in the American League. Yet on August 19, 1995, the Yankees had dragged their feet to a 53-51 record, 10.5 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. Fortunately, this was the first season with a Wild Card, so the 1.5 games they were behind in the Wild Card race was far more manageable. Before you assume they flipped a switch and dominated the rest of the way, here’s a reminder: They went 1-8 over their next nine games, which put them 16 games out of first place and 4.5 out of a Wild Card spot, tied for sixth place in that “race.”
As dark as that situation was, that was when the Yankee team that everyone expected to see in 1995 showed up: The Yankees went 25-6 over their final 31 games, clinching the Wild Card on the final day of the season with a win in Toronto. The combination of joy for Don Mattingly finally getting to play in the postseason and the good fortune for all involved that it was the first season with a Wild Card turned a potentially disheartening season into one that provided great memories. Despite how it ultimately ended in Seattle, it provided the springboard for a few Yankee teams that would have a little bit of success over the next four seasons.
The 2007 Yankees lineup was a modern-day Murderers’ Row, and unlike many of the Yankee teams of the aughts, it had pitching to support it with Mike Mussina, Chien-Ming Wang, and Andy Pettitte in the starting rotation. Yet on August 19th, they were four games behind Boston in the AL East but first in the Wild Card standings. If you’re thinking that situation seems workable, you wouldn’t be wrong – but that would require overlooking the earlier hole they needed to climb out of, with still more climbing to do.
The Tuesday after Memorial Day in 2007, the Yankees were 21-29 and tied for last place in the AL East, 14 games behind Boston, and in eighth place in the Wild Card standings. After straightening things out somewhat with a 15-10 stretch, they were still 11 games behind Boston and eight out of a Wild Card spot with five teams still in front of them on June 27th. They then went on a 34-15 tear which got them to a manageable position on this date in 2007. Still, a 24-14 finish down the stretch wasn’t good enough to win the division, as they fell two games short of Boston. Their torrid second half of the season did get them a Wild Card spot and into the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, which given the way the season started, was an impressive accomplishment.
Although the 2007 ALDS didn’t end quite as torturously for Yankee fans as the 1995 ALDS did, it did ultimately end with a loss. That’s why I saved the team with the happiest ending for last: A team loaded with MVPs, Cy Young Award winners, All-Stars, and future Hall of Famers just coming off a World Series win, the 1978 cadre had some pretty lofty expectations. If there was ever an “anything but a championship is a failure” season, 1978 was it.
Yet on today’s date in 1978, the Yankees were 7.5 behind Boston in the AL East. If again you’re thinking that’s bad, but not that bad, allow me to remind you of two things: First, there was no Wild Card in 1978. You won your division or you filled your fall schedule with tee times. Secondly, the Yankees had to go on an impressive tear just to reach the “longshot” odds they had on this date in 1978. As late as July 19, they were 48-42, 14 games behind first-place Boston. They had to go 21-10 just to get to 7.5 back on this date by August 19th.
What hindsight tells us is that in order to win the AL East, they’d need to go 31-11 over their final 42 games – which is exactly what they did. A stretch of .738 baseball that included a four-game sweep in Fenway in early September by a cumulative score of 42-9, and a win-or-go-home tiebreaker game in Boston on October 2nd. (A game that we can relive another day when we have more time. For now, we can all smile knowing how Bucky Dent got his nickname.) As you know, the 1978 edition of the Bronx Zoo went on to beat Kansas City in the ALCS, and the Dodgers in the World Series, completing one of the biggest in-season turnarounds in Yankee history.
Will the 2021 Bombers replicate the turnarounds of previous versions of slow starting but strong finishing Yankee teams?
To paraphrase LL Cool J, “Don’t call this a comeback” – not yet anyway. There is still approximately one-quarter of a season left to play and it’s unlikely the Yankees will continue to play at a .711 clip as they have since the Fourth of July debacle against the Mets. Furthermore, although we Yankee fans tend to enjoy figuratively kicking our rivals when they’re down, it’s unlikely Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto are preparing white flags to wave any time soon (in addition to the Wild Card contenders in other divisions).
There is certainly reason for optimism, however, to a greater extent than the Yankees and their fans have had in a while. With some key position players due to return soon, the potential for a fully-loaded Death Star lineup should be at Aaron Boone’s disposal, and the current starting rotation all of a sudden has the look of one that would inspire confidence going into a postseason series.
There’s still much baseball to be played, but regardless of how it turns out it looks like it’s going to be a fun home stretch, which for many of us was in doubt not that long ago.