BOSTON – He was standing in the wrong field just below the right field line, on a golden October afternoon, back at the scene of his famous home run on Tuesday. Bucky Dent, 69-year-old, silver hair under his Yankees hat, came from Florida to watch his old team begin the season with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Suddenly a ball came thundering in their path.
“They’re trying to kill me here!” Dent said, but it was friendly fire from batting practice, a hooking liner by a Yankee that rattled around his legs. It was one of the hardest balls the Yankees hit all night.
There was no new hero from the Yankees side of baseball’s greatest rivalry. Haven’t been there for some time. The Red Sox Yankees eliminated, swiftly and vigorously, in one 6-2 win in American League Wild-Card Game. The Yankees struck 11 times without a walk, and the last six places in their lineup combined took 1 for 20 with an infield single.
“Sick to my stomach,” said Yankees starter Gerrit Cole, describing how he felt after only two innings, allowed two homers, two walks and three runs. It was Cole’s shortest debut since 2016, long before the Yankees signed him for nine years and $324 million.
“We knocked out his ace,” said Boston’s Xander Bogarts, who blew a two-run homer into center field in the first innings. “It’s the best pitcher he’s ever had. This is the man to whom they gave all that money.”
Spending is rarely a problem for the Yankees, who typically rack up more than $200 million in their annual payroll but can’t get back to the World Series. He has made it just once in the last 18 seasons – in 2009, when he won his last title. The Red Sox have captured four in that stretch.
Boston now faces the current AL champion, the Tampa Bay Rays, in a best-of-five division series. rays – frugal and thriving as always – Racked the AL East Division crown with 100 wins, eight more than the Yankees and Red Sox.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone, whose contract is expiring, offered a kind of challenge to the players after Tuesday’s loss. He didn’t frame it as such to reporters, but how to interpret part of Boone’s message, that the league is now full of imposing rivals?
“The league closed the gap on us,” Boone said. “We have to get better. We have to get better in every aspect. Now we don’t just have the Red Sox and the Astros in our league. Look at our department. The Rays are a beast, Toronto, and there are some teams in the middle that get better and better There have been teams in the West that are better and better. Teams that have closed the gap on us, and they need to be front and center as people prepare in the off-season.”
Untold, but unmistakable, is that the Yankees are becoming what they fear: ordinary.
He still has superstars to drive his brand, most notably Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. But he only scored 711 runs this season—the Red Sox, Blue Jays, the Rays, the Astros and the World Series champion, Los Angeles Dodgers, all outscored him with more than 100.
The Yankees only have one starter, Cole, who can reliably work deep into games. Cole has a chance to win the AL Cy Young Award, but he fell down the stretch and performed so poorly on Tuesday that he agreed with Boone’s decision to lift him in third without a boycott.
“We have to win,” Cole said. “It’s the right move.”
The score was only 3-0, yet the game was out of reach. Nathan Iovaldi and four relievers handled the Yankees’ boom-or-bust offense with ease, allowing two singles homers and a few others. Stanton lamented his sixth inning shot at the Green Monster, which would have been a game-tying homer in the Bronx.
“Each game counts,” Stanton said. “We just needed one more and we will have it at home. So yes, they will come back to bite you.”
The Yankees won a . had crossed an unlisted first half to proceed with late september sweep on Fenway. But the Red Sox caught him in the final week, earning the right to host the game as they won the season 10-9 over the Yankees.
And so it was that Stanton’s high, deep drive turned disastrous. The judge, who was already running, was thrown out to the plate by Bogarts. Joey Gallo exited, and for the Yankees, the season was broken in a flurry of runs by the bullpen and run-scoring hits by Alex Verdugo.
The Red Sox acquired Verdugo from Los Angeles when they traded their cornerstone outfielder, Mookie Bates, to the Dodgers in early 2020. The deal was widely condemned in Boston, and the Red Sox fell flat in that short season.
Verdugo isn’t Bates, but he’s not bad, and the Red Sox seem to have escaped the short-term pain of Bates’ departure. Meanwhile, the Yankees are close to a similar crossroads with Judge, who could be a free agent after the 2022 season and cost a fortune to keep.
“I want to be a Yankee for life,” said the judge. “I’ve wanted to wear pinstripes all my career and represent this great organization and bring a championship back to the city. But you never know what the future holds for you.”
The Yankees have built around the judge since coming off the minors in August 2016. They had just done a roster reset, adding business stalwarts for a prospect that included Gleber Torres, Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield and others. But Frazier is injured, Sheffield was traded for the late James Paxton, and Torres has made a swift return to the plate and field.
Several other hitters have also faded, such as Gary Sanchez, who has batted .201 in the last four seasons and never partnered with Cole. Injuries sidelined or hindered DJ Lemahieu and Luke Voight. and Gallo – who is in control of the team for next season A Business From Texas in July – often sounded like an automatic out. He batted .160 as a Yankee, with 88 strikeouts in 188 at-bats.
“Overall, it was a difficult move for us to become the truly aggressive juggernaut we’ve come to expect,” Boone acknowledged. “I’m not sure why we didn’t realize our potential there.”
Now they have an extra month to think about it as the first team to be reshuffled at a later stage of the season. The Yankees will always have a history of their own – 57 postseason appearances, 40 pennants, 27 titles, living legends like Bucky and Reggie and Goose, Derek and Bernie and Moe.
But until recently every year ends the same way, less than a World Series, less than the exact standard that makes each autumn seem less joyful.
“It’s black and white for me: either you win or you don’t,” the judge said. “We don’t win. It’s a failure.”