The Yankees’ regular season has been a true Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. On pace for a historic season through the first half, they played to a sub-.500 pace for much of the second half, and looked in real danger of squandering what at one point was a 15.5 game lead in the division. Thankfully, they seemed to have tapped back into the effective play of the first few months flipping the narrative at the best possible moment.
Last night’s loss to the Blue Jays may have halted the winning streak at seven (though one could make a compelling argument that the Yankees win that game in regulation if they had a major league shortstop), but the point remains that New York is playing demonstrably better baseball of late. It’s one thing to run into wins at the end of the season facing opponents playing bad baseball à la the 2021 Yankees, it’s another thing to go out and win games by your own doing and that’s exactly what drove the seven-game winning streak.
The Bombers were back to doing things that powered their first half, scoring double digits against the Brewers and Pirates, coming from behind to walk-off the Pirates and Red Sox, and in general winning the close games that they dominated in the first half but couldn’t get the job done for most of the second half.
A combination of players returning from injury and slumping players busting out of their skids has been instrumental in this stretch of improved play. Gleyber Torres is having his best month after an abysmal August. Anthony Rizzo returned off the IL and is productive. Josh Donaldson has looked solid since returning from paternity leave. Oswaldo Cabrera has provided a spark with his bat and his glove in the outfield while Harrison Bader has looked like the best defensive center fielder in baseball since his activation off the IL. Heck, even Aaron Hicks and Marwin Gonzalez have come through with impact plays on both sides of the ball.
It’s much of the same story on the pitching side. Although Gerrit Cole continues to struggle with the big inning, Nestor Cortes and Luis Severino have been nails since their respective returns from the IL. The bullpen is finally finding a bit of stability after a seriously wobbly stretch. Clay Holmes and Jonathan Loáisiga are back and firing on all cylinders, giving the Yankees a potent one-two punch for the eighth and ninth innings. Scott Effross, Ron Marinaccio, and Zack Britton have all rejoined the team from injury, with the former pair regaining most of their effectiveness pre-injury.
The improved play is obviously the main takeaway here, but one cannot deny the benefit of having a positive mindset that can come from a stretch of sustained success, and how invaluable that can be heading into the postseason. I have a massive interest in the psychology of sports, though it’s nigh on impossible to quantify. Still, I’d like to share several theories about the Yankees’ season.
To me, it felt like the late-June four-game home series against the Astros was the turning point in the season. The Yankees had been playing unconscious up to that point, and it felt like they could never lose, or at least had a legitimate shot to win every game. Into Yankee Stadium stormed Houston pushing the Yankees to the brink in the first two games before humiliating them with a Verlander gem and a combined no-hitter. This felt like a wake-up call for the Yankees, interrupting their flow state and forcing them to reevaluate. It was almost like a reminder that any road to the World Series went through Houston, and we all know how those postseason matchups have gone in recent years.
The seven game winning streak seems to have brought back the mentality of the first-half. It just feels like the Bombers are letting the game come to them rather than trying to force results. They’re letting repetition and instinct take over, avoiding paralysis by over-analysis. And I thought Aaron Boone made a very interesting comment on the YES network postgame coverage following a win against the Red Sox. He admitted that Aaron Judge’s home run chase was taking pressure off teammates, the diverted attention allowing them to play more free and easy.
It’s stating the obvious that finishing the regular season on a high note can be a boon for the playoffs. It’s not enough just to win games — we’ve seen teams enter the playoffs on a heater and then collapse and teams that limp into the playoffs getting hot and going deep — what’s important is the manner of those wins. With that in mind, it’s hard to argue that the Yankees are back to playing some of their best baseball Toronto loss notwithstanding, and this could be just the catalyst for a success in the postseason.