The Yankees arrived at Rivalry Game 1 with a healthy-player problem as substantial as their well-chronicled injury epidemic.
No doubt the Yankees were enduring one body blow after another. But they still had more talent than the Orioles, Tigers and White Sox, who had sent the Yankees to losses in their first three home series for just the second time ever. They had enough talent to have leads in all but one of their nine losses.
“Regardless of what has happened [with injuries] we have been more than capable of winning games and we haven’t,” Brian Cashman said.
The Yankees general manager offered the insight Tuesday afternoon, not long after the team placed Greg Bird on the injured list. It was the Yankees’ 13th deployment already this season, the 12th player currently on it. Cashman also spoke those words before James Paxton threw the first of the most impactful 110 pitches of this young Yankees season.
Paxton was among the healthy not carrying the team in its time of need. He was acquired to be a co-ace to Luis Severino. But Severino will not throw a pitch before July as he works back from injuries to both his shoulder and lat. That amplified the lefty’s significance.
Paxton understood his station, admitted to being a bit overwhelmed by the Yankees environment after his third start, a clunker against Houston. Paxton had surrendered nine runs in 9¹/₃ innings in his past two starts and learned from Yankees executive Carlos Beltran he was tipping his knuckle-curve against the Astros.
So Paxton went new school. He chatted with his sports psychologist who advised him to embrace the magnitude of a Red Sox start. He studied video and found mechanics from previous outings against Boston that he liked — streamlined and downhill — and made a decision to use that and an aggressive attitude.
Then he did the most old-school thing you can to endear yourself to a Yankees fan — he dominated the Red Sox. He came out throwing hard and with precision. He worked inside, with pace and an air of being in charge. There was no (Sonny) Gray area. Black and white. Paxton was great and the Yankees followed with their most complete effort of 2019, an 8-0 thrashing of the reeling Red Sox.
“He set the tone,” manager Aaron Boone said.
More than one win will be needed. CC Sabathia came of the IL Saturday to inspire a 4-0 triumph over the White Sox, but 24 hours later the Yankees were back to malfeasance, blowing a series and falling to 6-9. So more than 7-9 is necessary.
That falls on the healthy and the present. Cashman said he does not consider an injured player near a return until he is out on a rehab assignment, and no one on the IL is on the precipice of that. So this is about the pedigreed bullpen performing much better than it has to date. It is about those thrust forward seizing an opportunity. Clint Frazier shares commonality with Bird — talented, yet oft-injured. Now, Frazier is getting a daily chance and he hit his fourth homer as part of an assault in which all nine Yankees got at least one hit.
The rotation is going to have to consistently keep the team in games — and more. Going into Tuesday, the main culprits were Paxton and J.A. Happ, the starters in the two-game set against Boston. The Yanks need Happ — who has yet to even get more than one out into the fifth in any of his three starts — to follow Paxton’s lead.
Usually the Red Sox would be the wrong foe for that. But the defending champs are not right. The offensive juggernaut of a year ago is absent and so is the consistent veteran starting pitching. Chris Sale came out throwing harder than in his first three starts and shut the Yankees down for two innings before getting hit consistently hard.
Meanwhile, Paxton retired the first nine, got into second and third no out in the fourth and induced two short flies to Aaron Judge before whiffing Mitch Moreland. He smacked his glove and exalted with a scream. Boston never challenged him again.
No Yankee had completed even seven innings this year before Paxton, and he was still throwing 97-98 mph as he became the first to throw at least eight scoreless inning in his Yankees debut against the Red Sox since Tommy John in May 1979. His 12 strikeouts were the most by a Yankee against Boston since Joba Chamberlain 10 years ago.
“It’s a big deal because it’s against Boston, especially being here, we want to beat Boston every time,” Paxton said. “And it was a big start for me, just to get my feet under me and show myself that I can be here and do this.”
Paxton’s feet were planted, his arm alive. He is part of the healthy contingent who must rewrite the story during this time of heavy injury to one in which the Yankees survived and advanced.
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