They are the Yankees. Twenty-seven championships. Large payroll. Lots of stars.
They cannot be the underdog because of that history, those dollars, that galaxy. But at the right juncture of the 2021 season, they have found an underdog spirit. Their contributions are coming from the scrap heap and Scranton as much as the top of the roster; in part because they have had a team that might capture the NL East on the injured list.
They won a game Sunday with a pitching tag team of Nestor Cortes Jr. starting and Wandy Peralta closing and a middle of Stephen Ridings, Jonathan Loaisiga and Lucas Luetge. Imagine if told in March that the Yanks would win a critical August game with that quintet.
They won a game Sunday with Rougned Odor and Luke Voit — de-emphasized and out of starting jobs after the trade deadline — providing the biggest blows, two-run homers that opened and completed the Yankees’ scoring.
They won a game Sunday because Andrew Velazquez, inserted as a defensive replacement at short in the ninth, “came flying out of nowhere” in Aaron Boone’s words to turn what could have been a devastating bloop single by Jake Lamb into the only out Luetge recorded. A lot of Yankees heroes come from out of nowhere these days.
They won 5-3 how they often have won of late, by causing their fans agita to the last pitch. But they won. They also do that a lot now. They improved to a major league best-tying (with San Francisco) 23-11 since July 6. That span includes four “can’t believe they lost it” games — two to the Red Sox, one to Astros and Thursday night amid the Iowa corn to the White Sox.
Yet, the Yankees have found an ability to absorb the worst kind of losses and get off the canvas. They came back in Chicago to take the last two from the White Sox. That Field of Nightmares loss was their only one in six games this year against the runaway AL Central leaders. The Yanks have won 10 of 11 series. And they are getting healthier.
Gerrit Cole is scheduled to return from a COVID absence to start Monday against the Angels and Jordan Montgomery to start one of two games Tuesday amid a vital three-game series against Boston. Anthony Rizzo and Gary Sanchez seem close by and maybe Aroldis Chapman and Domingo German, too.
The Yankees are moving nearer to whole, but they should remember the hole they were in; remember that they have climbed out to within 2 ¹/₂ games of both wild cards, Boston and Oakland, by not just relying on names or stars or what is expected to happen.
“We have done a really good job of guys coming up and holding the fort,” Cortes said.
No one has been more surprisingly important than Cortes. He is doing a lefty version of what Aaron Small did out of nowhere for the reeling 2005 Yankees. Cortes is like one of those inflatable air dancers that flutter about at store grand openings. He bends this way and that, changing arm and body angles and speeds — as Voit mentioned touching pretty much every mph between 70-90. In a high-velocity age, Cortes is providing the Yankees’ invaluable innings with a variety of stuff, a herky-jerky delivery and the confidence of a rock star.
The White Sox, deep in righty mashers, were an MLB-best 35-11 the last two years when an opponent starts a lefty. But Cortes delivered career-highs in innings (six), pitches (98) and tied his best with seven strikeouts. All of it was essential with the Yankee bullpen injured, exhausted or in the non-trust zone.
The Yanks, meanwhile, produced three second-inning runs and made Chicago starter Lucas Giolito dispense 101 pitches in four innings. But the Yanks also put men in scoring position every inning from the first to eighth and went 0-for-12 with 10 strikeouts. Joey Gallo, a hero Saturday, struck out in all four at-bats with runners in scoring position. From Voit’s one-out single in the third through the eighth, the Yankees went 0-for-18 overall and didn’t add to their lead despite six walks, a White Sox error, a batter reaching first on a strikeout passed ball, two wild pitches and a stolen base.
But Voit hit a two-run homer in the ninth to make it 5-1. These are the 2021 Yanks, though. They cannot just win easily. Luetge was bad, allowing three of four White Sox to reach in the ninth — his only out produced by the Velazquez play. Peralta, who is emerging as the most reliable lefty on a team with Chapman, Zack Britton and the first-half revelation Luetge, induced a game-ending double play with the tying runs on base.
“We are finding out a lot about other people,” Boone said.
The Yankees, of all things, are finding an underdog spirit.
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