Struggling Yankees stagger down the standings

Remember all those clubs the Yankees jumped over in the Wild Card standings when they were in that seven-game winning streak? Well, some of them have reversed course and are now looking at the Yankees in their rear-view mirrors.

By losing five of their past six games, including the first two games of this 11-game trip, the Yanks have staggered in the standings. Thursday night, they were two outs from moving to three games out of first place in the American League East and to one game back for the second Wild Card berth. But a five-run ninth inning by the Red Sox, who won again Friday night, has dropped the Yankees six games behind Boston in the AL East standings and 3 1/2 back of Toronto for the second Wild Card slot.

In addition, the Wild Card field is getting crowded again. The Tigers and the Mariners, whom the Yankees had leap-frogged last week, are back ahead of them. Detroit also lost Friday night but remained a game ahead of the Yankees along with Seattle, which took an eight-game winning streak into Friday night’s pairing with Houston, which is only a half-game behind the Yankees. A Seattle victory would push the Mariners over the Tigers and two games up on the Yanks. A Houston victory would put the Astros even with the Yankees and one game behind the Mariners and Tigers. And if the Blue Jays should win at Anaheim, the Yankees would fall to four games behind Toronto and Baltimore, which beat Tampa Bay, for the second Wild Card position.

That is how quickly things can change in a pennant race. Once again, Yankees manager Joe Girardi had to empty his bullpen as he used six pitchers against the Red Sox, who showed off their muscle again with 12 hits, half of them for extra bases.

The Yankees got good games from Baby Bombers Gary Sanchez, who belted a two-run double in the fifth inning to get them to 3-2, and Mason Williams, who had two hits and made a dazzling catch in right field in the eighth. Billy Butler forced Red Sox manager John Farrell to bring in his closer, Craig Kimbrel, with a two-run, pinch-hit home run in the ninth, but the Yankees could not get closer.

They needed to do better than gain a split of the four-game series at Fenway Park, but that is now the best the Yankees can hope for.

Another Betances breakdown spoils trip opener

For quite a spell Thursday night it looked as if the Yankees were going to shake off Wednesday’s deflating loss to the Dodgers and make a lot of headway in the standings. It seemed all set up for them with leads of 4-0 and 5-1, but try to remember the game was played at Fenway Park.

The Yankees stopped scoring after the fourth inning and so they did not exactly put the Red Sox away despite seven solid innings from Masahiro Tanaka. A solo homer by David Ortiz in the eighth off Adam Warren cut the Yankees’ lead to 5-2.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi had hoped to stay away from Dellin Betances in the ninth but was forced to bring him in when Blake Parker hit Chris Young with a pitch with one out. For the second straight game, however, Betances could not get it done. Two-out hits by Ortiz and Mookie Betts made it a one-run game. Betances then fell behind 3-1 in the count to Hanley Ramirez, who drove the next pitch over the center field wall for a walk-off, three-run home run.

Oh, does this one hurt. A victory would have lifted the Yankees past the Tigers and one game behind the Orioles for the second Wild Card slot not to mention moving to three games of the first-place Red Sox in the American League East and give Boston second second thoughts about its security.

For a team that banged out 14 hits and had four other base runners on three walks and a hit batter, the Yankees should have scored more than five runs. They were 5-for-16 (.313) with runners in scoring position which is good, but they stranded 12 runners, half of them over the final five innings when they were 1-for-8 (.125) with runners in scoring position.

It was the fifth blown save for Betances, whose ERA soared to 2.83, and a tough no-decision for Tanaka, who is 6-0 with a 1.86 ERA in his past eight starts.

And it was another Yankee-killing game for Ortiz, who had three RBI and has six home runs and 11 RBI against them this year. Ortiz’s 34th home run of the season was career No. 537 to move past Mickey Mantle into 17th place on the all-time list. Ortiz has 53 career homers against the Yankees.

Butler contributes right away for Yankees

Billy Butler did not waste any time to get into the swing of things in his first game for the Yankees. Less than two hours after arriving in Boston while the Yanks were taking batting practice, Butler hit a sacrifice fly in his first at-bat Thursday night.

Butler, who was released by the Athletics a week ago, was signed by the Yankees, who were in search for a right-handed hitter after rookie Aaron Judge had to be placed on the 15-day disabled list due to a strained right oblique. The Yanks have been vulnerable to left-handed pitching all season.

Butler, a designated hitter and first baseman, had his best years with the Royals and had a hard time of it in Oakland since signing a three-year contract as a free agent after the 2014 season. He recently got into a fight with A’s teammate Danny Valencia, which greased the skids for Butler in Oakland.

The Yankees faced a left-handed starter in Eduardo Rodriguez, who had been tough on them in the past but failed to get past the third inning Thursday night. The Yanks struck for two runs in the first on a single by Jacoby Ellsbury, a double by Gary Sachez, an RBI single by Starlin Castro and the sac fly by Butler.

They added two more runs in the third with Butler getting his second RBI on a single that followed a double by Castro, who rebounded from his costly error Wednesday against the Dodgers with a four-hit, two-RBI game at Fenway Park. A double by Didi Gregorius and a single by Chase Headley made the score 4-0 and chased Rodriguez, who entered the game with a 4-1 record and 1.88 ERA in his career against the Yankees and was 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA against them this year.

The multitude of early-inning runs were a blessing to Masahiro Tanaka, who navigated his way through the Red Sox batting order without his best stuff. For example, he walked two batters in the third inning, which was twice as many as he walked in the entire month of August. The Red Sox loaded the bases with one out that inning, but Tanaka limited the damage to a sacrifice fly by David Ortiz.

The Yankees nullified that run the next inning on a two-out, RBI single by Castro. Tanaka pitched seven innings but did not strike out a single batter. He did get 18 of his 21 outs in the infield, 15 of them on ground balls.

Costly errors end successful homestand on a downer

Sloppy play, which has not been a characteristic of the Yankees this year, cost them a chance to finish off a triumphant homestand Wednesday. They were guilty of three errors, two of which came in the ninth inning that made both runs of the Dodgers’ 2-0 victory unearned.

So the Yankees finished up the homestand with a 7-3 record, but they squandered an opportunity to gain ground in the Wild Card chase on a day when Toronto lost, so they remained two games behind for the second Wild Card slot on the eve of what could be a season-shaping trip.

The Yankees take to the road for 11 games over the next 12 days — four in Boston Thursday night through Sunday, three in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday through next Thursday and four in Toronto next Friday night through Monday, Sept. 26. That will leave only six games remaining in the regular season, which the Yankees will close out at home with three-game sets against the Red Sox and the Orioles.

All of which means the Yankees will have an abundance of opportunities to make up ground in the postseason hunt, but they will need to have fewer innings than Wednesday’s ninth. Two of Dellin Betances weaknesses came into play that inning and stuck him with the loss.

After reaching base on Starlin Castro’s misplay of a soft, back-spinning liner, Corey Seager took advantage of Betances’ long stride to the plate in his delivery and stole second base. Justin Turner broke up the scoreless game with a double over third base that scored Seager.

Turner alertly tagged up and crossed over to third base on Adrian Gonzalez’s flyout to deep left-center. Yasmani Grandal next hit a one-hopper right back to Betances, but the 6-foot-8 reliever made an awkward throw home that sailed over catcher Gary Sanchez’s high-stretched mitt for another damaging error.

After having shut out the Dodgers the night before on solo home runs by Jacoby Ellsbury, Didi Gregorius and Sanchez, the Yanks managed only three hits, all singles, off five L.A. pitchers in sustaining their 10th shutout loss of the season.

Clayton Kershaw, the three-time National League Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL Most Valuable Player, made only his second start since coming off the disabled list due to herniated disks in his back, and was masterful for five innings. He allowed only one hit with no walks and five strikeouts.

The first of two rain delays shorted Michael Pineda’s outing after four innings in which he gave up two hits and two walks with five strikeouts. Tommy Layne, Luis Severino and Tyler Clippard held the Dodgers scoreless as well until Betances’ hiccup. Severino has not allowed an earned run in eight relief outing covering 18 2/3 innings. Clippard has given up one earned run over 19 innings (0.47 ERA) in his 21 appearances since joining the Yankees from the Diamondbacks.

The Yankees also lost rookie outfielder Aaron Judge likely for the remainder of the regular season. Judge has a strained right oblique, a condition that is slow to heal. The Yankees called up from Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre outfielder Mason Williams, who played right field in the last two innings after Rob Refsnyder was lifted in the seventh for pinch hitter Brian McCann.

The Yankees finished the season 8-12 in inter-league play. It was just their fourth non-winning record against NL clubs in 20 seasons of inter-league play. The Yanks were also 9-11 in 2013, 9-9 in 1999 and 5-10 in 1997, the first year of inter-league play.

They have a 16-3-1 inter-league series mark and are 45-31 (.592) in inter-league match-ups at the current Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009. They are 6-7 in inter-league competition against the Dodgers, one of only two clubs against which the Yankees have losing records. They are also 13-14 against the Phillies.

Four Yankees fans nominated for MLB Fan of the Year

Voting beqan today for the new MLB Fans of the Year presented by Esurance. Four Yankees fans have been nominated for the inaugural award and the winner will be decided by their fellow fans over the next week. The nominees:

Michael LaPayower
Collin Berg
Mark Gordon
Victor Miloscio

Fans may cast their vote for the MLB Fans of the Year by visiting from Sept. 13-19. Once on the website, fans can choose among the four Fan of the Year nominees per club. Fans’ votes will be cast via posts on Twitter by including a desired nominee’s unique hashtag.

Voting percentages will be available throughout the voting period showing in real time where each nominee stands. Fans can vote as many times as they want throughout the course of the voting period and the nominee with the most hashtag uses will be declared the winning Fan of the Year for their club. Each winner will be part of the inaugural class of MLB Fans of the Year.

The MLB Fan of the Year award launches the start of the Esurance MLB Awards season. Voting on the remaining award categories begins Sept. 19 and runs through Nov. 11 when the winners will be announced via an MLB Network telecast from 8-9 p.m. Nov. 18.

The all-digital awards experience includes an awards website that also serves as a content hub, discussion forum and voting platform for fans to engage with each other throughout the final weeks of the MLB season and postseason.

Below is a list of this year’s Esurance MLB Awards categories.

Best Major Leaguer
Best Hitter
Best Pitcher
Best Rookie
Best Defensive Player
Best Social Media Personality
Best Play, Offense
Best Play, Defense
Best Moment
Best Performance
Best Social Media Post
Best Fan Catch
Best MLB Interview
Best Call, TV/Radio
Best Player-Fan Interaction
Best Trending Topic
Best Manager
Best Executive
Best Major Leaguer, Postseason

Esurance is in its second year of a multi-year partnership with MLB as the exclusive auto insurance partner for the league and is the title sponsor of the Esurance MLB Awards and the all-digital Esurance MLB All-Star Game Ballot.

Wild night at Dodger, er, Yankee Stadium

The Yankees find fans all over the map as they travel around North America during the season. The boosters are akin to Notre Dame’s famed subway alumni.

I recall a game at Anaheim in the early 1990s when Don Mattingly came off the bench at whacked a pinch-hit, three-run home run in the top of the ninth inning that pushed the Yankees into the lead of a game they eventually won. As Mattingly rounded the bases, the cheers from the Big A’s stands were so loud you would have sworn you were in the Bronx, which is about as far from Orange County, California, as you can get.

Whatever the venue, be it Baltimore’s Camden Yards, certainly Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field or even Boston’s Fenway Park, pockets of Yankees fans abound in the stands. Well, a collection of boisterous Dodgers fans gave the Yankees at taste of their own medicine Monday night at Yankee Stadium in the opener of a three-game, inter-league series.

A cluster of Dodgers fans filled a sizeable portion of the seats along the third base to left field line. The group went even so far as to mimic the roll call of the Yankees’ bleacher creatures but by calling out the names of the Dodgers instead. When the Dodgers rallied for a run right off the bat in the first inning, it seemed more like Dodger Stadium than Yankee Stadium.

Yankees fans finally responded with loud boos when fans near the left field foul pole unveiled a blue “LA” banner amid a three-run rally by the Dodgers.

There is plenty of history between these clubs. After all, they have been paired in 11 World Series, the most of any two teams. When the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn prior to 1958, they faced the Yanks seven times in the Series and won only once, in 1955. Since they made Southern California home, the Dodgers split four Series against the Yankees, winning in 1963 and ’81 and losing in 1977 and ’78.

Unfortunately, the Yankees did not give their fans much reason to retaliate in the 8-2 loss that caused them to lose ground in the Wild Card race. The Yanks remained two games behind the Orioles and dropped a game behind the Tigers for the second Wild Card berth.

It was a rough night for the Baby Bombers. Right fielder Aaron Judge and catcher Gary Sanchez made errors that led to runs. Starting pitcher Bryan Mitchell could not get out of the third inning, although four of the six runs against him were not earned, due to the two errors. Tyler Austin wore the golden sombrero with four strikeouts. The most effective Yankees pitcher was lefthander Richard Bleier, who tossed four shutout innings of hitless relief. He walked one batter, hit one and struck out three.

The Yankees’ runs came on two long home runs. Starlin Castro’s 21st dinger of the season landed in the second deck in left field in the second inning. Judge bashed a 432-foot bomb into the left-center field bleachers in the fifth. The Dodgers countered with late-inning home runs by Yasiel Puig and Justin Turner, to the absolute delight of the Dodgers Blue crowd than drowned out Yankees Universe at least for one night.

Beat-up Gregorius gets needed time off

When Didi Gregorius lifted a soft fly ball to left field in his first at-bat Sunday, I said to the person next to me in the press box, “The shortstop could use a day off.”

There is a good chance that manager Joe Girardi felt the same way. Gregorius ended up taking a 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Yankees’ 4-2 loss to the Rays to continue a slump that has persisted through September. So it was no surprise that he was not in the starting lineup for Monday night’s opener of the three-game, inter-league series against the Dodgers.
“I think it’s just getting beat up over the course of the year,” Girardi said. “Whether it’s the two balls he took off his arm — the hit by pitches, ribs, off his feet, sometimes you get to a point where you just need to shut a guy down for a day or two.”

September is the beat-up month as players who have slogged through the dog days of August try to lick their wounds. For an everyday shortstop such as Gregorius, who has been perhaps the Yankees’ steadiest player, the bumps and bruises can really pile up.

Gregorius’ season heated up big-time in June, a month in which he batted .337. His season batting average remained in the .290s throughout July when he hit .297 overall. He slipped to .268 in August, but that was also his best power month with six home runs and 18 RBI.

Come September, Didi has fallen into his first extended slump of the year with only three hits in 34 at-bats, a .088 stretch that has dragged his average down from .286 to .273. Gregorius has already achieved career-high totals in home runs (17) and RBI (64), but he has not homered in 84 at-bats since Aug. 18.

It comes at a time that he has been moved around the lineup as Girardi seeks to find players who can be productive in the middle of the lineup with the release of Alex Rodriguez and the reduction in playing time of retiring Mark Teixeira.

Actually, Gregorius has been decent as a cleanup hitter, batting .279 with four doubles, one triple, one home run and seven RBI in 43 at-bats but has hit only .231 in 13 at-bats in the 3-hole. He is most comfortable — and productive — hitting lower in the order. His combined numbers from the 7- and 8-holes indicate that: .301 with 14 doubles, seven homers and 32 RBI in 226 at-bats.

Set with Dodgers an inter-league interruption

The Yankees have worked hard to get back into the American League East and Wild Card races. The seven-game winning streak that ended Sunday with a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay has the Yanks right on the tails of the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles. And at the crucial moment in the schedule they will have an interruption.

That is one way to look at their upcoming series against the Dodgers starting Monday night at Yankee Stadium. When the leagues were divided into 15 clubs apiece three years ago, it necessitated inter-league play on a daily basis. The Yankees’ turn in the inter-league barrel has one last go-round this year, and that will be the next three days against the National League West first-place club. Surely, the Yankees would prefer to play the Dodgers in the World Series and not before.

I remember how Joe Torre once characterized inter-league play as if the games were akin to exhibitions because “the teams are not playing for the same prize,” which is position in their separate league standings.

At this point the Yankees sort of drift out of the way while the Rays go from here to Toronto and the Orioles and Red Sox pair up at Boston. Perhaps that will be beneficial to the Yanks with their AL East competitors beating each other up but only if they can handle the Dodgers.

Sunday’s loss dropped the Yankees four games behind first-place Boston in the AL East and two games back of Toronto and Baltimore for the second Wild Card berth in a tie with Detroit.

Considering that the Rays hit 10 home runs in the series they were bound to win at least one of the four games, which they finally did Sunday behind three home runs off Luis Cessa, who sustained his first major-league loss in five decisions. Of the 25 runs Cessa has allowed, 20 have come on the 13 home runs he has yielded.

The Yankees got a home run as well — Chase Headley’s 14th — but that was all against Tampa Bay starter Matt Andriese. The Yankees’ other run was unearned due to an error by Rays third baseman Evan Longoria in the seventh inning.

It was scored on a single by Brett Gardner, who had a terrific series (7-for-12, three runs, one double, one RBI, one stolen base). Gardner has multiple hits in each of his past four games with a plate appearance and is batting .563 in 16 at-bats over the stretch.

The Yankees got another impressive relief outing from Luis Severino, who pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings with three strikeouts. The righthander has not given up an earned run in seven relief appearances totaling 16 2/3 innings.

Yankees observe 15th anniversary of 9/11

The Yankees observed the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City Sunday with a tasteful ceremony at Yankee Stadium before the game against the Rays.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi and relief pitcher Dellin Betances lay a wreath at the 9/11/01 Monument in Monument Park in honor of the men and women who lost their lives in the attack of the World Trade Center. In the pregame ceremony, the Yankees recognized servicemen and servicewomen from Walter Reed Hospital and the Fort Belvoir Wounded Warriors.

The New York Police Department’s Emerald Society Pipes and Drums paraded onto the field performing the Armed Forces Medley before a presentation of the colors by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Honor Guard.

Following a moment of silence, FDNY firefighter Frank Pizzaro sang the national anthem while fellow firefighters unfurled a giant American flag. It was the same one that was unfurled at the original Stadium in 2001 when President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 3 of the World Series.

Yankees roll seven, shoot for sweep

Something old, something new.

It is this combination that has sustained the Yankees in their winning streak that reached seven games Saturday with a 5-1 victory over the Rays. Remember about two weeks ago I wrote that the Yankees needed to do more than just win series, taking two of three games here and two of three there. They need to go on a run the way the Royals worked themselves into contention with a nine-game winning streak.

Well, here it is, Yankees fans. This is the Yanks’ longest winning streak since a seven-gamer May 1-9 of last year. They are a season-best 11 games over .500, have won 13 of their past 14 games, 20 of their past 29 and are 24-13 since the non-waiver trading deadline of Aug. 1.

The Yankees got a strong start from Masahiro Tanaka (13-4, 3.04 ERA), who gave up one run and five hits with 10 strikeouts, and a combination of old (Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury) and new (Gary Sanchez and Rob Refsnyder) to remain on the heels of the Orioles and the Tigers in the race for the second Wild Card slot in the playoffs. With Baltimore and Detroit opposing each other Saturday night, the Yanks were guaranteed to be no more than one game behind.

But that is not all. With the Red Sox losing to the Blue Jays, the Yankees are only three games out of first place. Who could have imagined this happening back in that last weekend in July when the Yankees were stuck at .500 (52-52) after getting swept in a three-game series at Tropicana Field.

Sunday the Yankees have a chance to sweep those same Rays, this time in a four-game set. They have swept two others four-game series this year, against the Angels and the Athletics, and have already won their past eight four-game series.

Tanaka gave the Yankees something they have lacked from a starter lately — length. Manager Joe Girardi had used 35 pitchers over the previous six games in the winning streak, an average of nearly six pitchers per game. This is less taxing on the staff at this time of year when rosters have expanded. Girardi used to beef about September games with uneven roster numbers, but you do not hear him complaining now as his team is trying to pull off an epic comeback.

After giving up a home run to Bobby Wilson and hitting a batter in the eighth, Tanaka came out for Adam Warren, who also plunked a batter before getting a huge double-play grounder from Evan Longoria.

Rays starter Chris Archer, who has been tough on the Yankees (5-2 entering play), fell to 8-18 essentially because of the first three hitters in the lineup. Gardner singled leading off the sixth of what was then a scoreless game.

Ellsbury wears out Archer and did so again with his eighth home run of the season. Sanchez followed with another bomb, his 13th. The trio was at it again in the eighth, this time against lefthander Enny Romero. Gardner singled, Ellsbury doubled and Sanchez was able to reach the first pitch of what was supposed to be the start of an intentional walk for a sacrifice fly to the warning track. Didi Gregorius added another sac fly.

Refsnyder was 0-for-3 but made an important defensive play, a lunging catch in right field to keep the game scoreless in the sixth.

The something old-something new formula had worked in Friday night’s marathon with Sanchez hitting his 12th homer and Mark Teixeira crushing his 11th career grand slam.

Tanaka has won each of his past six decisions over a seven-start stretch since Aug. 7. He is 5-0 with a 2.42 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings seven starts against the Rays, with the Yankees winning each of those starts.

Sanchez is one of five players in major league history with 13 home runs in his first 35 games (also Wally Joyner, Mike Jacobs, Kevin Maas and Wally Berger). Ellsbury is a career .559 hitter against Archer in 34 at-bats. Gardner has multiple hits in each of his past three games with an at-bat (6-for-12). The Yankees are 11-1 when Gardner and Ellsbury each collect at least two hits in the same game.