Sunday, February 5 2023

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

What will the New York Yankees do to celebrate, assuming their implosion doesn’t become so complete that a once 15.5-game lead atop the American League East is allowed to wither down to zero?

What would a divisional title party look like in the Bronx, in a year when a stunning capitulation came hot on the heels of what teased as a campaign for the ages?

Will they bust out some Sinatra and hope the fans are still engaged enough to croon along? Don’t expect much vocal assistance from the players, the cynics might sneer. After all, it’s hard to sing when you’ve spent the last half of the year choking.

The tale of two seasons up by E 161st St. is many things; a peculiarity, a farce, a lesson in the danger of lost confidence, a delight to rivals from Queens to Tampa to Toronto to Houston, a collapse of record-shaking proportions and a reason to wish Yogi Berra was still here to conjure a wonderfully paradoxical comment that summed it all up.

Instead, it was left to modern hero Aaron Judge to encapsulate the gloom, just a few days back.

“It’s tough to have a little bit of swagger when you keep losing games and dropping series and not playing your brand of baseball,” Judge told reporters.

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But what if a double-headed story suddenly conjures an unexpected third twist?

Just as the finishing touches were being put to the Yankee obituary, a glimmer of hope has emerged in the shape of four straight wins. It’s a mini-run that might not yet be convincing enough for anyone to believe a return to the early-season magic beckons, but it at least leans toward some welcome stability.

Full faith is going to take time to restore, even after two of those wins were in morale-boosting scraps with the crosstown Mets that climbed Judge’s home run tally to 48. There will be reluctance from the bandwagon-deserters to leap back aboard, despite Giancarlo Stanton’s return from injury, and notwithstanding a 13-4 drubbing of the Oakland A’s on Thursday that saw the team open a double-digit lead before four innings were done.

At the All-Star break, New York was a rip-roaring 64-28 and had spent much of the campaign clipping along with a smoothly sensational level of confidence. Since then, none of baseball’s alphabet soup of metrics are needed to spell out the decline, just the raw old truth that they kept being spanked on the backside.

Six straight series were dropped, the first time a Yankees team had done that since 1995. No fewer than 15 defeats in 19 games elicited loud boos from the home crowd after an Aug. 20 loss that brought the surging Blue Jays to within seven games.

Not since … oops, never … has a team made such a flying start before folding in an equally insipid fashion. The Yankees this year are the first to have gone .700 in the first 60 games, and under .500 in the next 60.

Judge, bombing along at such a fearsome pace that “Roger Maris” and “61” became trending topics midsummer, slowed to a standstill during the team’s sleepiest stretch. An increasingly popular AL MVP candidate (even with Shohei Ohtani’s two-way majesty), Judge can hardly be blamed for the drop. Sooner or later the frosty form making its way through the clubhouse was going to bite him, too, and it did.

Yet this week’s uplift coincided with his thundering bat being heard anew, and at 13 back of Maris’ all-time single-season Yankee and AL records with 37 games left, destiny looks possible. 

“It just took a little reminder of who we are and what type of baseball we play,” Judge added. “Going back to doing the basics. We got it back.”

Back to stay, or back as just a naughty false glimpse? That’s what will be unearthed — and soon — and it will determine whether manager Aaron Boone’s men go into the postseason as a highly-regarded threat to win it all, or a team that peaked way, way too early.

Injury-free good fortune was a sizable help in the early part of the year and has been a contributing detriment of late, though there are some more positive signals from the treatment room.

Pitching trio Luis Severino, Clay Holmes and Zack Britton are getting close to being usable, but doubts still remain about the bullpen, especially with the offense no longer looking swashbuckling enough to overcome it on a nightly basis.

On Thursday, farm system ace Greg Weissert had a tough time in his first appearance since being called up, though with a huge lead already established, it didn’t matter.

Stringing some good results together has improved the spirits of the fan base, but they long ago stopped comparing this year’s team to the franchise’s finest historical lineups.

“As for the Yankees, they still have work to do,” wrote the New York Post’s Jon Heyman. “We’ve been fooled before during their slide by a couple wins here or there.”

The Yankees’ mini-surge hasn’t done much for their lead in the division, not with the Rays winning six straight and the Blue Jays on a 7-1 stretch. 

All things considered, a buffer of 7.5 games should be enough, and there should be a celebration of this rollercoaster of a campaign before too long. How long, loud and enjoyable will the party turn out to be?

Well, that depends on what we’re seeing now — either a turned corner or an outlying blip in a historic collapse.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.


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