Whether it ends with a World Series victory or some Wild Card shenanigans, the 2015 campaign has been a vast improvement on the previous two seasons of Yankees baseball. Competitive baseball deep into September is far more enjoyable than watching retirement tours play out the string amid numerous Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki starts, no matter how awesome the final games were in terms of Yankees history. This team has stayed in the playoff hunt all year long and defied preseason pessimism from writers who said they would be lucky to even be close to the Wild Card picture.
There has not quite been one standout memory from this year though. Earlier today, Yankees beat writer Bryan Hoch posed a fascinating question on Twitter, and the answer is far from clear:
So many choices. I'll volley it to the Twittersphere: What do *you* think was the defining moment of the 2015 #Yankees season?— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) September 30, 2015
There are numerous options. In some years, there are one or two obvious frontrunners, like "Walk-off Weekend" or the Francisco Cervelli Atlanta game in 2009, or the Marcus Thames walk-off against Jonathan Papelbon from 2010. This year has brought a number of moments to the forefront, both positive and negative. Remember, "defining" doesn't necessarily been "best achievement," so for that reason, I don't think Michael Pineda'a 16-strikeout game or Alex Rodriguez's three-homer game in Minnesota fit the bill. So which do you think was the most defining moment?
1. Beltran blasts Toronto
Carlos Beltran's second half has been nothing short of outstanding for the Yankees, and it has almost validated the big three-year, $45 million contract the Yankees gave him before the 2014 season. Considering where he was in April--a badly declining 38-year-old platoon bat with fans counting the days down until the arrival or Aaron Judge--that is a remarkable feat. On August 14th, the Yankees and Blue Jays met with Toronto on a scorching hot 11-game winning streak. The Blue Jays jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and trade deadline prize David Price twirled seven shutout innings. Win number 12 appeared fait accompli.
However, with one out in the eighth, Price allowed back-to-back singles to Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann, then surrendered an RBI ground-rule double to Chase Headley that made it 3-1. Reliever Aaron Sanchez entered to face Beltran and jumped ahead in the count, 1-2. On the next pitch though, Beltran clobbered one to deep left-center and gone for a three-run homer. The bench erupted, and shortly thereafter, Andrew Miller sealed the deal with a dramatic strikeout of Troy Tulowitzki in a 12-pitch at-bat. Greg Bird would have a similarly impressive late-game homer in Toronto one month later, but this one came with the Yankees in a more realistic situation to hold onto first place. Even though they could not hold on to it, this win ranks up there with the most dramatic triumphs of the season.
2. Slade slays the Rays
A little over two weeks ago, the rest of baseball learned about Slade Heathcott. The 2009 first round pick has had a tumultuous road to the big leagues that saw him get cut from the 40-man roster as recently as December. He stayed with the team though, and he rewarded them with a red-hot start in Triple-A Scranton, one which earned him a promotion to the Yankees in mid-May. The debut was short-lived, as after just six games, the old injury bug bit Slade again, and he went on the DL with a quad strain.
Heathcott struggled upon his return to Scranton a couple months later, and it took him awhile to even appear in a major league game following September call-ups. He finally entered action in a tight scoreless game against the Rays on September 14th as an eighth inning defensive replacement. Justin Wilson coughed up a run, but down to their last strike, the Yankees rallied on a game-tying RBI single by A-Rod. With Heathcott due up next, Tampa skipper Kevin Cash intentionally walked McCann to set up the rookie's first MLB at-bat in three and a half months. Closer Brad Boxberger kicked, fired... and gave up a stunning three-run bomb. In a matter of a few minutes, a tough 1-0 loss turned into an exhilarating 4-1 lead. This would have been amazing regardless, but given Slade's unlikely journey to this moment, it would be tough to vote against it.
3. Tex's costly foul
On the negative side, this unfortunate foul ball might be what truly wrecks the Yankees' season. Teixeira was in the middle of an All-Star season, his best year as a Yankee since his first season in pinstripes, a runner-up MVP finish. A switch-hitting power threat with tremendous defense, Tex was the heart of the Yankees' lineup, arguably even more valuable than A-Rod. The offense was running smoothly on August 17th when the Yankees faced Kyle Gibson and the Twins. Then, Teixeira crushed a foul ball off his leg. He limped around and eventually stayed in the game, though Bird pinch-ran for him in the sixth.
The Yankees had Teixeira undergo a couple MRIs over the next two weeks, hoping to get him back soon without needing to DL him. Initial tests said that it was just a bone bruise, but it wasn't getting better. Teixeira couldn't even run to first base when he attempted a return in a start on August 25th. More tests were done on the leg, and soon, the team's worst fears were realized: it was fractured. Teixeira's season was over. Although Bird has done a terrific job filling in at first, the lineup against lefties is a shadow of what it once was, and if the offense continues its recent skid into the playoffs, critics will be quick to point to the team MVP's absence as the reason.
A book could probably be written one day about A-Rod's last two years. He's gone from suspended and almost completely out of the public eye in 2014 to the center (centaur?) of New York baseball's attention in 2015. Despite only playing two months of professional baseball in the previous two years combined, A-Rod was amazing in the first half, hitting .278/.382/.515 with 18 homers and, incredibly, winning back the favor of the Yankee Stadium crowd.
After A-Rod passed Willie Mays for fourth place on the all-time home run list in May with number 661, eyes moved to the next milestone, his 3,000th hit. That came in mid-June against the Tigers and Justin Verlander. Just like Derek Jeter, A-Rod went deep for number 3,000, and the crowd went wild. The Yankees, the same organization who battled him in court just one year ago, even honored him with a ceremony commemorating the hit in September. A-Rod's improbable comeback might be the baseball story of 2015, and number 3,000 was the pinnacle. That's the power of #ROD.
It had been quite some time since Yankees fans held the kind of excitement about a pitching prospect as they did for Luis Severino. It's incredible to think that just a little over two years ago, he was pitching in Rookie ball. The young Dominican zoomed through the system though, and shortly after the trade deadline passed this year, GM Brian Cashman announced that Severino would be promoted to help the big league rotation.
Severino and other prospects' names were bandied about in trade talks, but the Yankees remained steadfast in their devotion to not surrendering the young talent for rentals. So when the 210-year-old took the mound at Yankee Stadium on August 5th, it marked the beginning of a new youth movement for the still predominantly old team. He fired five innings of two-run ball (one earned) with seven strikeouts and no walks against an experienced Red Sox lineup. Even though he was tagged with the loss because the offense was mystified by knuckleballer Steven Wright, it was awesome to see a homegrown product actually excel for once. In the time since then, Bird was also called up to rave reviews, and Severino has pitched to a 143 ERA+ with 50 strikeouts over 55 1/3 innings. At this point, the Yankees' rotation is desperate for reliable starters, and Severino might just be the best one behind ace Masahiro Tanaka. Not bad for someone who was not allowed to drink legally in January of this year.