NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees will take wins any way they can get them right now. , then, on Saturday afternoon, their vaunted bullpen allowed another late lead to slip away. This time the offense picked them up.
With runners on the corners and one out in the ninth inning, and light hitting backup catcher Erik Kratz at the plate, current New York Mets reliever (former Yankee) Dellin Betances uncorked a walk-off wild pitch to the backstop to end his former team's seven-game losing streak (NYY 2, NYM 1).
"Really good to get a victory and come in and hear music," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said following Saturday's win. "... For the guys to continue to grind out -- obviously we pitched really well and then a couple really good at-bats to set up that winning run -- just a really good battle and had some winning at-bats at the end."
Another loss Saturday would've given the Yankees their first eight-game losing streak in a quarter-century. Here are the longest active eight-game losing streak "droughts" according to YES Network stats guru James Smyth:
- New York Yankees: Aug. 19-16, 1995
- St. Louis Cardinals: Sept. 7-15, 2007 (nine games)
- Toronto Blue Jays: May 19-26, 2009
- Washington Nationals: Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, 2009
- San Diego Padres: June 29 to July 8, 2013 (10 games)
Lefty J.A. Happ, now 37, went into Saturday's start with a 6.39 ERA and more walks (10) than strikeouts (6) in 12 2/3 innings, and he had been increasingly vocal about having his starts skipped whenever the Yankees have a game postponed. Happ has a $17 million option for 2021 that will vest with 10 starts or 61 1/3 innings this year, milestones he is not on pace to reach.
"I'm not going to comment on the contract situation that he's got, but I can tell you that you know in a 60-game COVID season it's a sprint," GM Brian Cashman said prior to Saturday's game. "... You're going to start your best starters and give them the ball as much as you possibly can in this shortened COVID season, and unfortunately because of how we evaluate our rotation -- and objectively how I think anybody would look at based on J.A. Happ's performance last year and this year so far in the regular season -- he slots towards the back of that rotation. That's all we're doing."
Happ responded with possibly his best outing as a Yankee on Saturday, holding the Mets to three singles in 7 1/3 scoreless innings in his fourth start of 2020. It was the first time in 45 starts as a Yankee that he pitched into the eighth inning, and he faced only one batter over the minimum thanks to a caught stealing and a double play. Suddenly he's down to a respectable 4.05 ERA.
"I feel like I got in a rhythm with my delivery," Happ said following Saturday's game. "... I was able to kind of take a little bit off and change my fastball speeds a little and hopefully kept them just enough off balance. Been trying to focus on one at a time, one pitch at a time. To get a few innings under (my belt) there and try to get into that delivery and feel that rhythm. That was definitely beneficial."
"It's no secret what he's been through this year," Boone added. "For him to -- in his last outing he pitched really well after a couple tough starts --- and now with the long rest, his focus never altered. His work between stars has been excellent. To be in the eighth inning and essentially at 90 pitches against a good lineup, just really proud of him."
Happ's outing did not earn him a win. Wilson Ramos, the first batter reliever Adam Ottavino faced, hit a game-tying solo home run off the left field foul pole. It was the eighth home run the Yankees bullpen had allowed in the last six games. They allowed eight home runs in their previous 23 games. The walk-off wild pitch was needed to ensure Happ's performance did not go to waste.
The Yankees have a very Murphy's Law vibe right now. Just about everything that could go wrong is going wrong, whether it's having entire series wiped out because their opponent had positive COVID-19 tests or the bullpen blowing leads or important players getting injured on a daily basis, seemingly. Every day brought a new challenge during the losing streak.
Things have may started to turn in the Yankees' favor Saturday, though all the worrisome trends that existed during the seven-game losing streak were still present. These two things in particular must correct for New York to build on Saturday's win and right the ship.
The offense has been dormant
The Yankees welcomed DJ LeMahieu back from the injured list Saturday. He'd missed two weeks with a thumb sprain suffered on a swing. Even with LeMahieu back, the Yankees are still without Aaron Judge (calf strain), Giancarlo Stanton (hamstring strain), and Gleyber Torres (quad and hamstring strains). Three of their four best players, basically.
Unlike last year, when seemingly everyone the Yankees called up to cover for an injury hit on their best case scenario, the offense is reeling without its star players. Saturday's game was eighth consecutive game the Yankees scored no more than five runs and the fourth time in those eight games they scored no more than two runs.
Things are going so poorly offensively that the Yankees had two runners thrown out at the plate in the same inning Saturday. They also stranded the bases loaded in the seventh inning at a time when one insurance run would've felt like 10.
Luke Voit, who went deep Saturday and is putting up MVP numbers, and Clint Frazier (.297/.422/.649 since being called up to replace Stanton) were New York's only consistent offensive contributors during the losing streak. LeMahieu (triple on Saturday) gives them a third weapon. Otherwise there are a lot of easy outs in the lineup right now. This is not going to work:
- LF Brett Gardner: .190/.325/.381 in 77 plate appearances
- CF Aaron Hicks: .198/.343/.383 in 99 plate appearances
- C Gary Sanchez: .130/.256/.338 in 90 plate appearances
Those three combined for 74 homers and an .839 OPS in 2019. This season they've collectively been sub-replacement level. Judge is several weeks away -- Cashman said he will spent twice as long on the injured list as his previous stint (he was due to return in 10 days before the Mets series postponement) -- ditto Stanton and Torres. Help is not imminent.
The Yankees scored their first run Saturday on Voit's solo home run into the right field short porch. Between that and the walk-off wild pitch, they were limited to four hits and five walks in nine innings, and went 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position. New York is 6 for 48 (.125) with runners in scoring position in their last eight games.
"Definitely a grind-out win," LeMahieu said. "Not the prettiest win, but we needed that bad today. Hopefully that sparks us and gets us back to playing the way we should be playing."
The bullpen keeps blowing leads
The Yankees have held a lead with six or fewer outs to go in each of their last four games. The bullpen blew all four leads. Last season the Yankees lost three games total when leading with no more six outs remaining. Prior to Saturday, they'd lost three such games consecutively and in the span of three days.
Here are the recent bullpen meltdowns:
|Date||Reliever||Situation when entering||Outcome|
Weds., Aug. 26 in Game 2
Yankees up 1-0 in the sixth inning
Green surrenders two-run homer to Freddie Freeman
Fri., Aug. 28 in Game 1
Yankees up 4-1 in the sixth inning
Green allows three homers in the span of five batters
Fri., Aug. 28 in Game 2
Yankees up 3-2 in the seventh inning
|Sat., Aug. 29||Adam Ottavino||Yankees up 1-0 in the eighth inning||Ottavino allows a game-tying solo homer to Ramos|
According to the win probability data at FanGraphs, the Yankees had at least an 80 percent chance to win all four games, yet the first three turned into losses and the fourth required a miracle walk-off wild pitch. The Yankees have invested a lot of money in their bullpen -- they have three of the 18 highest paid relievers on their roster -- and their top guys are blowing games, not their second tier relievers.
Going into Saturday's game New York's relief crew owned a 4.30 ERA on the season, which ranked middle of the pack among the 30 clubs. Middle of the pack qualifies as a massive disappointment for this group even with the injuries. Zack Britton (hamstring) may return within the next week and he'll help, but, more than anything, the Yankees need the relievers on the roster right now to perform as expected. As they did last season.
"You still have to lean on guys and count on guys to do their job. Just because you've hit a bump in the road, that doesn't change," Boone said. "... The game is littered with bumps in the road and you've got to be able to handle that as a big leaguer, and our guys will continue to do that. We know they're pretty good at turning the page."