How the Yankees Became the Hottest Team in MLB

TORONTO — The Yankees lost here Wednesday, breaking an 11-game winning streak. It was a hotly contested game, as most disputes between them and the Blue Jays have been this season.

Trailing 2-1 in the ninth inning, the Yankees carried the bases with two outs, but were one step away from tying the score when shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa grounded third baseman Matt Chapman, whose pitch was collected in first by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who showed his flexibility doing the openings.

“I was really mad at myself,” Chapman, a three-time Gold Glove winner, said of the pitch, “and then really excited.”

The Yankees stayed on the field as they challenged the play, but in the end they packed up the visiting club and headed home. Even with a loss, they won the three-game set, holding the best record in baseball (18-7) and handing the Blue Jays their first loss of the season.

“Winning 11 straight games is no easy feat,” said Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing with. This is a very good club and we came here and played very well. Losing a game of a race on the road and we had an opportunity in the ninth to go ahead, I like our chances. Today we couldn’t make a profit, but next time I’ll be waiting for us to do so.”

With a month into the season, the Yankees have shown that they are something different from the Yankees of the recent past. Their shooting was their best asset in 2021 when they went 92-70 and dropped to Boston in the American League wild card game, but it was even stronger this season. His attack is more dynamic, hitting less and hitting the ball with more force. Their defense has seen the most dramatic growth, going from one of the worst in Major League Baseball to one of the best so far.

In every way, manager Aaron Boone said this week, the 2022 Yankees are better.

“We’re a better, more versatile offense,” he said. “We manage the bases better. There is no doubt that we got the ball better and we have a chance to be a very good defensive team this year. Pitching was our calling card last year. However, with that said, I feel like we have a better pitching team from top to bottom this year.”

During their winning streak, the Yankees have demonstrated that they can win in many ways: by scoring lots of runs, winning close contests with good shooting and saves, relying on more parts of the roster. It’s true that most opponents of late have had losing records and weren’t expected to compete in the postseason – the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Guardians and Kansas City Royals – but that’s why fights against the Blue Jays are always so revealing.

On Monday, the Yankees beat the Blue Jays at their own game. As of Wednesday, Toronto was 10-3 in one-run games, playing and beating more nail biters than anyone in baseball and showing what their pitch and field were capable of. The Yankees won 3-2 because of a solid start from Jordan Montgomery (two runs in five innings), a strong kick from the bullpen, and all of their runs led by second baseman Gleyber Torres, who suffered the worst season of his career in 2021.

“The swing didn’t work with my hands and my lower body was going in the opposite direction,” Torres said of a swing that last year produced a .259 average, nine home runs, and a .697 base plus slugging percentage. all career lows for a full season. “Only now I’m more in control.”

In a 9-1 win on Tuesday, Yankees starter James Taillon, sidelined from his ankle surgery last October, was robust again, allowing just one run in six innings. And the Yankees’ offense was boosted by outfielder Aaron Judge, who crushed his ninth home run of the year. After making a big bet on himself by turning down a seven-year, $213.5 million contract extension before the start of the regular season, Judge was hitting .293 with an OPS of 1.009 leading the Yankees in 24 games.

“It’s only 11 games, but we have more work to do,” Judge said of the team’s winning streak, later noting that he was happy to be free of nagging injuries so far this season. “A lot of good things happened. We show what this team is made of, but we show that we can win games with our shooting and our attack. We can win with the small ball or with the big fly. We just have to stay consistent.”

Although the Yankees’ offense failed Wednesday against Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi, they almost got a comeback against Jordan Romano, who leads baseball with 12 saves. Against a mighty Blue Jays lineup that could welcome back the injured Teoscar Hernández this weekend, Yankees starter Nestor Cortes Jr. struggled with the shaky command, walking four and coughing two runs in four innings.

Still, the Yankees’ rotation ranked fourth in baseball (with an average of 2.85 runs won) through Wednesday. By including the bullpen, the Yankees’ pitching team (2.60 ERA) was second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers (2.21) in MLB. season.

The most notable upgrades, however, were on offense and defense. By subtracting hitters who were worse defenders, such as first baseman Luke Voit and catcher Gary Sánchez, the Yankees traded catcher José Trevino and Kiner-Falefa, and re-signed Anthony Rizzo. Kiner-Falefa, who was hitting a team-record .295, and Rizzo, who has nine home runs, hit less often.

Paired with Kyle Higashioka, the Yankees’ catching duo are adept at calling games and framing shots. Gold Glove winning third baseman of 2020, Kiner-Falefa allowed Torres, who struggled at shortstop last season, back to second base. Rizzo, a four-time Gold Glove winner, saves his infielders with his balls and footwork at first base. Donaldson is right, and versatile infielder DJ LeMahieu is healthier than he was last season.

Based on some advanced metrics, the Yankees’ defense has jumped from one of the worst in baseball to the top 10 this season. The trickledown effects will show throughout the year: better field means fewer extra pitches, fewer runs and more wins. The Yankees’ 73 undeserved runs allowed last year was the eighth-most in baseball, as they are on track to halve that number this season.

Going into this season, the Yankees were expected to make the playoffs despite a fairly similar cast of characters, few big-name acquisitions, and questions about whether they did enough to improve during the off-season. So far, the results are good.

“My mind has never changed since the first day of spring training,” Judge said. “I know what this team has and what they are capable of. To be honest, I don’t really read what the experts have to say about this team’s performance. Let’s go out there and let’s work and the results will show.”

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