To illustrate how battered the first-place Yankees have been this season, consider the team’s starting lineup on Sunday night against its rival, the Boston Red Sox. Of the nine position players hoping to close out a four-game sweep, only four were on the Yankees’ opening day roster: infielder Gleyber Torres, and outfielders Aaron Judge, Mike Tauchman and Brett Gardner.
The list of the Yankees’ wounded grew to 16 over the weekend, when first baseman-designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion sustained a hairline fracture in his right wrist after being hit by a pitch, and center fielder Aaron Hicks strained the flexor muscle in his right elbow after a throw from the outfield.
In all, 25 different Yankees have spent time on the injured list this season. Several of them have been stars, and some have made multiple visits, such as starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia and outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Hicks.
Yet the Yankees entered Sunday night neck and neck with the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in baseball. The Yankees maintained a comfortable lead in the American League East over the surging Tampa Bay Rays (seven and a half games) and the floundering Red Sox (13 and a half games).
“The greatest strength of this team is its ability to overcome adversity and just keep pushing forward,” said Tauchman, whose torrid hitting in July helped the Yankees continue to win.
The depth of the Yankees’ roster and farm system, in addition to the organization’s resources, scouting, analytics and coaching, has been on display this season. Every step back, such as the injuries sustained by Encarnacion and Hicks during Saturday’s doubleheader, has been followed by two forward, such as the two wins over the Red Sox on Saturday.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Hicks said. “Guys come back and somebody else goes down. It’s tough, but we’ve been dealing with it this whole year and we’ve been able to still win. So it’s a next man up kind of thing.”
After Hicks’s injury, some Yankees feared the worst on Saturday night: a torn ulnar collateral ligament and Tommy John surgery. “Anything with the elbow makes you nervous,” Hicks said on Saturday.
But after a magnetic resonance imaging examination on Sunday, Hicks and the team exhaled. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said Hicks’s elbow ligament was intact and that he would be shut down from throwing for up to 10 days. “We’re optimistic that he will be back,” Boone said.
With Encarnacion, it was more unclear. He said the pain he felt in his fractured right wrist on Saturday was worse than in 2009, when he missed two months with a fractured left wrist. Boone said a rehabilitation plan would be mapped out for Encarnacion after an evaluation in seven to 10 days.
Encarnacion said he hoped to miss no more than three weeks, but was unsure and suggested it could be up to five. Judge missed a month and a half last season when his right wrist was fractured by a pitch. He returned in mid-September for a playoff push.
“For me, it’s frustrating, especially when I start feeling better at the plate and see the ball better,” said Encarnacion, who was hitting .333 with five home runs and 20 runs driven in over his previous 90 plate appearances. “So it’s tough for me.”
Encarnacion’s injury is particularly concerning for the Yankees because their other first baseman-designated hitter, Luke Voit, returned to the I.L. July 31 with a sports hernia injury. Voit received a cortisone shot last week and hoped to avoid surgery, which would knock him out for more than six weeks.
With the August waiver trade period no longer in existence — this was the first year of the hard July 31 deadline for major-league trades — the Yankees have few options for outside upgrades. Boone said the Yankees would fill first base with Mike Ford, who was called up from Class AAA on Saturday, and D.J. LeMahieu, a versatile infielder.
As for center field, the Yankees will turn back to Gardner, with some help from Tauchman. Gardner manned the position for the first month and a half of the season while Hicks dealt with a back injury. But the Yankees are mindful of Gardner’s age (he will be 36 later this month) and his knee (he recently missed 10 games because it was inflamed).
While Yankees fans were clamoring for a call-up of outfielder Clint Frazier from Class AAA to replace Hicks, he wasn’t considered, Boone said. Frazier was key in helping the Yankees overcome injuries to Stanton, Judge and Hicks from April to mid-June. But the Yankees already had four outfielders on the roster with Cameron Maybin, Gardner, Judge and Tauchman, all of whom are more capable defenders than Frazier.
Throughout all the injuries, and all the wins in spite of them, Judge said he has never daydreamed about what the Yankees might look like — and perhaps how many more victories they would have — with a healthy roster.
“We don’t have time to think about that,” he said. “Just focus on winning games with the guys we got here. That’s all we can do.”