Despite their recent struggles — relative struggles, to be clear — the Yankees woke up Thursday morning with the best record in Major League Baseball.
No other team had reached 30 wins or possessed a winning percentage above .700. At 31-13, the Yankees got off to their best start since 1998, when they won their first of three straight World Series titles. For a team that entered 2022 with questions about whether it had improved enough to make a deep playoff run, the Yankees, for a quarter of the regular season, had been playing like a championship contender.
But some cracks have started to form. Going into a four-game series against division rival Tampa Bay Rays that began Thursday in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Yankees had lost four of their last seven games. Just a hit on the radar for a marathon 162-game regular season, but a notable one.
Most important, however, is a string of injuries to key players that are piling up after a strong start to the year. On Saturday, longtime right-handed reliever Chad Green landed on the injured list with an elbow injury that will require season-ending surgery at Tommy John. Since then, the Yankees have faced a host of ills, testing the depth of the team with the third-highest payroll in baseball.
Outfielder Joey Gallo, third baseman Josh Donaldson and receiver Kyle Higashioka all spent time this week on the Covid-19 injured list.
DJ LeMahieu, the team’s versatile infielder who was slowly looking more like himself after an injury-plagued 2021 season, was sidelined with a left wrist injury. He underwent a magnetic resonance imaging scan on Tuesday and received a cortisone injection for the discomfort. Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters that LeMahieu was being considered day-to-day.
The 2022 MLB season
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Some of LeMahieu’s teammates will need more time, however. Aroldis Chapman, the closest hard-throwing left-hander whose command on the mound had been inconsistent, landed on the 15-day disabled list on Tuesday with left Achilles tendonitis. A day later, key right-handed reliever Jonathan Loáisiga, also in the midst of a slip, joined Chapman on the IL with an inflamed right shoulder.
Then a much more alarming injury occurred, with outfielder Giancarlo Stanton being lifted for a pinch in the Yankees’ 7-6 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday with what the team initially called a sprained calf. .
After an MRI, the Yankees placed Stanton, who struggled with injuries during his tenure with the Yankees but leads the RBI team this season, on the 10-day IL. His injury designation was changed to right ankle inflammation.
“I just feel like it’s something that’s going to be short, but I feel like we should knock it out and not play with it and maybe it will become something else,” said Boone to reporters about Stanton’s injury. “So hopefully he’s come out a bit ahead of him, and hopefully it’s only 10 days away and he’s back.”
We will miss Stanton’s presence on the Yankees roster: he was hitting .285 with 11 home runs and .862 on-base plus slugging percentage – all second on the team behind Aaron Judge.
Although Judge has had an amazing start to the season, even he can’t lead a roster alone. And so, the Yankees will have to find answers elsewhere on their roster as they enter a tougher part of their schedule after a recent streak against several teams with sub-0.500 winning percentages, such as the Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers and the Orioles.
They should face a much tougher task against the Rays, who have won the American League East in each of the previous two seasons but entered this series 26-17, four games away and running back behind the Yankees. Including Thursday, 23 of the Yankees’ next 29 games are against teams with winning percentages above .500, such as the Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros and Rays.
Higashioka and Gallo have returned to action in recent days, but have contributed more with their gloves than their bats this season. Donaldson – whose one-game suspension for “disrespectful” comments to Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson remains on appeal – could be back soon.
Looking for more reinforcements, the Yankees signed three-time star infielder Matt Carpenter to a major league contract on Thursday. Carpenter, 36, spent 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, struggling at the plate in his final three seasons. He signed a minor league contract with Texas over the winter and hit .275 with six home runs in 21 games with their Class AAA affiliate, the Round Rock Express, before being released last week.
Although he’s been hit even harder by injuries than the team’s offense, the Yankees’ strongest unit this season has been their pitching team. Chapman, Green and Loáisiga all came out, joining left-handed reliever Zack Britton and right-handed starter Domingo German on the IL, but entering Thursday the Yankees were third in the ERA majors (3.00) thanks to crucial contributions from the IL. starter Nestor Cortes (1.80 ERA), all-rounder Michael King (2.96) and backup Clay Holmes (0.38).
On Thursday, the Yankees added a familiar face as backup: Manny Bañuelos, 31, a former top prospect who a decade ago was part of the Killer Bs alongside Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances – a group that was meant to be the future of the franchise’s pitching team. Only Betances became a bona fide major leaguer, becoming a four-time All-Star setup before a series of injuries sidelined him for the past three years.
Following many ailments of his own and a winding path that included stops in the major and minor leagues, Mexico and Taiwan, Bañuelos signed a minor league contract with the Yankees over the winter and has posted a 2.35 ERA over nearly 31 runs in their class. AAA Affiliate. After JP Sears pitched five scoreless innings on Wednesday in his first major league start, the Yankees needed a fresh arm and called Bañuelos. His next major league appearance would be his first for the Yankees.
Carpenter and Bañuelos may seem like unlikely replacements for a team with a payroll just under $250 million, but if they can help bridge the gap until the team regulars return, they will have done their work.
“You have to be able to weather the storm and have other guys step in in different situations,” Boone told reporters of his team’s injuries on Wednesday. “Sometimes it’s in small touches. Sometimes it’s longer. It’s part of the 162-game season grind. We are ready to handle this, we are eager to handle this. The season does not stop for anyone.