B-team Bombers? Hardly. Backups bid to equal 2018 Yankees’ historic HR pace
BALTIMORE — As he angrily picked himself up off his belly in the ninth inning Thursday, Aaron Hicks put a scowl on his face and took his mind to one place: over the fence.
“I wanted to get up and hit a homer,” the New York Yankees center fielder said.
About 100 feet away in his dugout, other Bronx Bombers shared that mindset, hoping after the 94-mph brushback fastball that miraculously missed hitting him — thanks to some last-second, body-bending bailing — Hicks might crush a ball into oblivion.
They were all looking for him to hit yet another Yankees big fly. What many of them might not have known was that a grand slam there would be the team’s 81st homer of the year, putting it practically homer-for-homer on the same pace of their torrid record-setting campaign of a year ago.
Remember the 267 home runs the Yankees hit in 2018, with the likes of Aaron Judge, a healthy Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar and Hicks? Believe it or not, this year’s B-team Bombers are not far off that pace.
If this year’s team — which will eventually get Judge, Stanton and Gregorius back from stints on an injured list currently populated by 14 Yankees — keeps homering at this current clip, it will go yard 264 times by season’s end. That would put the 2019 Yankees in a tie for second on the all-time single-season team homer list with the 1997 Seattle Mariners. Only last year’s Yankees have hit more.
“It’s crazy how guys come up [from Triple-A], hit a lot of homers. It’s crazy, man,” said outfielder Clint Frazier, who has nine home runs in an injury-shortened season, including his fifth-inning drive to left Thursday. “I don’t think the league has really adjusted to some of the players yet, so you’ve got a ton of guys with a lot of talent, and they are making adjustments if they were pitched different than they were before.
“And, dude, we’re good.”
When it comes to the long ball so far this season, the Yankees certainly are. They currently have only three fewer homers than they did at this exact point last season. If they homer three times at Kansas City on Friday, they’ll be step-for-step with last year’s Bombers.
Four teams are currently outpacing the Yankees’ 80 homers, including Minnesota, which is leading the way with 98. Still, New York this year has made it a habit of hammering pitches.
“We just put our concentration and our focus to do damage, like we did [against Baltimore],” shortstop Gleyber Torres said.
With their injured list now overflowing with pitchers, including CC Sabathia‘s addition early Thursday, the Yankees could stand to get several more offensive explosions. Until Sabathia returns from an anticipated week and a half of rest to let a cortisone shot settle, the Yankees will be bullpenning possibly their next two times through the rotation. All of that could heavily tax their pitching staff.
So, it will be up to the position players to pick up the slack, which is exactly what they did these past four days.
All week, Camden Yards was a veritable Yankees launching pad. In all, 13 home runs left Bombers bats in the four-game series. Had three more been struck off Orioles pitching, New York would have set a record for home runs hit in a single series in franchise history. At home against the White Sox in 2007, the Yankees hit 15 bombs in a three-game set.
Still, this marked just the fifth time in Yankees history that they hit at least 13 homers in a road series.
All of this week’s homers versus the O’s led the Yankees to a key early-season sweep as they tried to stretch out their recently acquired division lead. Since returning home from a three-city West Coast road trip at the start of this month, the Yankees have won 15 of 19 and overtaken the Tampa Bay Rays for first place in the American League East.
“These guys, the focus each and every day is on the game and playing winning baseball, and everyone kind of pulling their weight, and the mantra of come in and do your job,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “They’ve really taken to that, and a lot of them really well.”
The star of the past week was Torres, who had multi-homer games Monday and Wednesday before being kept out of the starting lineup Thursday. He didn’t have much of a rest day, though. With two outs in the ninth, Torres and fellow O’s killer Gary Sanchez, came up to pinch hit.
Orioles reliever Mychal Givens kept both in the ballpark this time, though, allowing Torres to draw a clutch tie-game walk before giving up a single to Sanchez. By the time Hicks came up two batters later with a chance to blow the game wide open, Torres and Sanchez were in scoring position after starting a two-out bases-loaded rally.
“You always like when they’re in the lineup, but to have them sitting over there in that spot was nice,” Boone said of both young hitters. “And the fact that they were ready. It’s not always easy for guys that are regulars like that that have been sitting over there all day.”
“It’s crazy how guys come up [from Triple-A], hit a lot of homers. It’s crazy, man. I don’t think the league has really adjusted to some of the players yet, so you’ve got a ton of guys with a lot of talent, and they are making adjustments if they were pitched different than they were before. And, dude, we’re good.”
Combined, Torres and Sanchez have hit 19 home runs off the Orioles this season. That’s only 11 fewer than the entire Miami Marlins team has hit against every opponent it has faced this year. Of the 12 homers Torres has hit this season, 10 have come against the Orioles. Of those 10, five came in the three games he started this week in Baltimore.
After hitting his 12th homer of the season Thursday, first baseman Luke Voit joked about Torres being given an off day, saying: “Gleyber’s letting us hit — or maybe Aaron’s letting the rest of us hit home runs.”
While Sanchez’s 15 homers in an IL-affected season leads the team, Torres and Voit each have 12. Frazier has nine and Brett Gardner — who had 12 homers all of last season — is next on the list with seven. DJ LeMahieu and Mike Tauchman have four homers apiece. Thairo Estrada and Gio Urshela, two players who began the season at Triple-A, have three and two homers, respectively.
“I’m happy for all these guys that are getting these chances, because sometimes, a lot of these guys don’t get chances,” Voit said.
Voit was one of those unknown players who was looking for a break last season. After a brief stay in the minors following his trade-deadline arrival in the Bronx last summer, Voit went on to homer 14 times in the final month and a half last season. Only Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich had more home runs (15) within that stretch.
When spring training started, it wasn’t a given that Voit would be the Yankees’ Opening Day starter at first base. But he earned the job after a competition with Greg Bird, who later got sidelined with a bout of plantar fasciitis.
Before the wave of injuries set in, LeMahieu was viewed as a complementary piece, playing a rover type role to help give some of his fellow infielders occasional relief. Like Estrada and Urshela, Frazier began the year in the minors.
“Even though we have some guys that aren’t the main starters, they’re still able to come up here and do damage, too,” Hicks said. “The guys that we have are the same as the starters we’re missing; guys that hit homers. They like to drive the ball a lot.
“It also helps to have guys that are extremely hot.”
With the two hottest hitters on the team on second and third, Hicks’ ninth-inning plate appearance continued after that far-inside pitch. Still hunting his chance to hit a homer, he fouled off a pitch and took another two balls. That final ball led to a bases-loaded walk that brought in Torres from third with what later proved to be the game-winning run. It’s the league-leading eighth bases-loaded walk he has drawn since the start of 2017. While that wasn’t the ending Hicks had hoped for, it was one he welcomed.
Perhaps that play helps explain why it has seemed so hard to fathom this team being as competitive with the long ball as it was last year. Small ball, drawing walks and using speed to succeed has been the 2019 Yankees’ most recognized calling card.
“That’s what’s making this great,” Voit said. “I don’t want to say it was like that last year, but we kind of relied on the three-run homer all the time. And now we’re getting walks, we’re moving guys over when they need to be, hitting sac flies and playing really good defense.
“It’s just stepping up and doing your job and not being a selfish player.”