A month ago, Aaron Judge was near the bottom of the batting order for the New York Yankees, a team supposedly a year away from a rise to contention.
It’s too early to make many definitive statements. A baseball season is full of surprises — winning streaks and losing skids, injuries, twists and turns — and October is five months in the future. Still, it sure appears the Yankees are arriving a year early.
Judge, tied for the major-league lead with 13 home runs, has moved into the middle of a loaded lineup. The pitching, especially the starting rotation, has been stronger than expected. The roster seems to be the perfect combination of youth and veterans, with more prospects on the way.
The underdog role never truly fits New York, yet that’s how this rebuilt team was cast, and that’s a role this team has outgrown in only five weeks. After leaving Chicago with a memorable three-game sweep of the Cubs, the Yankees claim baseball’s best record at 20-9.
The baseball analysts who said the Yankees were a year away are revising their stories, and the oddsmakers are adjusting their numbers.
Even after a red-hot spring, the Yankees were tagged with a season win total of 83, 15-1 odds to win the American League and 30-1 odds to win the World Series. Now headed for 90-plus wins, the Yankees’ odds are 5-1 to win the AL and 10-1 to win it all.
New York’s start is reminiscent of something witnessed in Chicago a year ago, when the Cubs were 24-6 on May 8.
The 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge is a real Bronx bomber and literally one of the biggest stories of the season so far. A first-round pick from Fresno State in 2013, Judge made his MLB debut last August and homered in his first at-bat. But there was a monstrous hole in his swing, and he finished 2016 with 42 strikeouts in 82 at-bats.
Judge, 25, and catcher Gary Sanchez, 24, lead the offensive youth movement. Sanchez debuted last season by hitting 20 homers in 53 games and resembling the next Babe Ruth. While an injury has slowed Sanchez, nothing has stopped Judge.
The Yankees lead the AL runs (167) and home runs (48) and rank third in batting average (.271).
The weekend sweep at Wrigley Field was a bold statement. Down to their last strike in Friday’s opener, the Yankees pulled out a 3-2 win on Brett Gardner’s dramatic three-run homer. Gardner shouted like a psycho as he circled the bases, a display that typified the Yankees’ early-season energy.
Cubs castoff Starlin Castro, batting .355 to lead the AL, crushed a home run to the top of the left-field bleachers in an 11-6 win on Saturday. Jacoby Ellsbury homered in the 5-4, 18-inning win on Sunday night, when the bullpen held up after closer Aroldis Chapman’s rare ninth-inning meltdown.
The Yankees are probably overachieving, and Baltimore and Boston are right on their tail in the AL East. There are always questions, such as, will the starting rotation hold up all summer? When will Judge slip into a slump? How many corny home-run calls can the radio play-by-play guy invent?
Every team eventually hits bumps in the road, but manager Joe Girardi is capable of handling the situations in a similar way Joe Maddon managed last year’s Cubs.
It’s intriguing to see the Yankees grow up, and when Judge struts to the plate, everyone is watching.
The day after
The Cubs and Yankees exhausted their bullpens and used a total of 18 pitchers in their 18-inning marathon Sunday night. Both teams are on the road Monday, when most bettors will be looking to play against both teams.
Jake Arrieta is the Cubs’ scheduled starter at Colorado. Arrieta figured to be at the team hotel in Denver, but he emerged from the dugout to pinch-hit in the 14th inning. The overnight line on the Cubs was minus-142 and it dropped to minus-130. The Yankees, who will start Masahiro Tanaka at Cincinnati, opened as minus-150 favorites and dropped to minus-140.
Even before ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner wrecked a dirt bike in the Colorado mountains in April, the San Francisco Giants were headed in a downward spiral. Bumgarner injured his throwing shoulder and is out until mid-July.
Rewind to last year’s All-Star break. Bumgarner had just taken a no-hitter into the eighth inning and struck out 14 in a one-hit shutout of Arizona. The Giants went into the break with a 57-33 record, the best in baseball.
Since then, San Francisco is 41-63, including 11-21 this season. The Giants were just outscored 31-5 while getting swept in a three-game series at Cincinnati, and their season already is a wreck.
Demise of the Mets
Noah Syndergaard has an arm injury that is expected to sideline him at least six weeks, and another struggling right-hander, Matt Harvey, is serving a brief suspension. The Mets (14-16) are a mess, and they figure to get worse while Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals (21-10) run away with the NL East.
The Nationals’ plus-53 run differential tops MLB, with the Yankees at plus-52.