BALTIMORE — Aaron Boone used all the self-discipline he could muster in making out the lineup on Thursday at Camden Yards, where the Yankees were on the doorstep of a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. It would have been easy to pencil in the club’s hottest hitters — Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez — and further demoralize the American League East.
No one would have faulted Boone for going to the whip, even during this stretch of 17 consecutive games without a day off. His Yankees, after all, are baseball’s hottest team and continue to put distance between themselves and the Tampa Bay Rays. What manager dares to pull the plug on a hot streak?
But Boone, taking the long view, opted for prudence. He kept both Torres and Sanchez out of the starting lineup — and still won. The 6-5 victory over Baltimore was the Yankees’ ninth in 10 games and boosted their record to 24-7 since April 19, the best in the majors. When Boone says “we’re playing really well” he’s sending a chilling message to the rest of the American League: the Yankees are rolling with a cast of The Expendables.
Think of it: without Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton or Didi Gregorius, and saving Torres and Sanchez until the ninth inning as pinch-hitters, the Yankees used the series finale as an advertisement of their depth. They erased an early 1-0 deficit on Clint Frazier’s solo homer in the fifth inning, took the lead on Gio Urshela’s two-run single in the sixth and made it 4-1 on Austin Romine’s run-scoring single in the seventh.
[Keeping Score: Beating up the Orioles is a bit of a tradition for young Yankees hitters.]
Luke Voit’s solo homer gave the Yankees what felt like a safe cushion in the eighth, but that was before the Orioles tied the game with a four-run rally in the bottom half of the inning, a rally that included Renato Nunez’s three-run home run off Tommy Kahnle.
That’s when Boone decided to unleash the bats he had held in reserve — Torres and Sanchez, both of whom had been on a ferocious tear. Torres’s two home runs on Wednesday represented his fourth multi-homer game of the season and extended his hitting streak to 11 games, during which he’d batted .405.
Sanchez? He’d homered in his last three games before Thursday and since April 7 had gone deep in five straight games against Orioles pitching. Despite the offensive momentum, Boone said both players would benefit from a day off.
“This is about keeping him off his legs,” the manager said, speaking specifically of Torres.
Not that the young infielder necessarily agreed.
“I feel good, I feel healthy. I was ready,” Torres said without rancor. Instead, his only responsibility was to stay sharp over the next several hours, which meant stretching in the clubhouse between innings, taking sets of practice swings, then returning to the dugout to catch up on the action before starting the cycle all over again.
Staying ready proved wise once the ninth inning rolled around. Torres, batting for Thairo Estrada, drew a leadoff walk. Sanchez, batting for Romine, lifted a single to right and the Yankees were ready to break the Orioles’ hearts one more time. When Aaron Hicks drew a bases-loaded walk off Mychal Givens, it not only scored Torres with the decisive run but sent the Orioles to their 10th loss in 12 games against the Yankees this season.
Of course there are other challenges ahead of the Yankees; not every team is as undermanned as Baltimore. The Red Sox will be in town next weekend for a better measure of the balance of power in the East. But there are still signs of vast improvement between this year’s Yankees and the 2018 edition.
Their strikeouts, for instance, are down drastically: the Yankees whiffed at the third-highest rate in the American League in 2018. This year they rank 11th. Although some argue that strikeouts are merely outs and nothing more, Boone disagreed.
“Contact is important, it matters,” he said. “It’s something we talked about in spring training.”
Marcus Thames, the Yankees’ hitting coach, said that philosophy — patience and discipline — has become a near obsession that the team’s hitters are buying into.
“We talk about controlling the strike over and over in the dugout,” he said. “We talked about in the spring and now in every meeting, before every series. We keep stressing how important it is to get your pitch. We never stop having that conversation.”
The second half of the current makeover is more mental than physical: not relying nearly as much on Judge and Stanton. Or, more accurately, not feeling weaponless in their absences. The Yankees played .500 ball for most of the two months Judge was on the injured list in 2018. This year, they’ve actually flourished without him.
“The difference is the mind-set. No one in here has panicked,” said Judge, who is recovering from a severe oblique strain. “Guys are seeing the injuries as a chance to step up, not a setback. I’ve been saying it all along: this is a special group. I feel that way more than ever.”
C.C. Sabathia was placed on the 10-day injured with right knee inflammation. Manager Aaron Boone hopes treatment and rest will solve the issue and cost the pitcher just one start.