Yankees’ toughest punch yet could make or break them

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If Rex Ryan managed the 2021 Yankees, Friday might very well have become the “We’re obviously out of the playoffs” portion of our program.

Common sense says the Yankees are toast after they opened their second half of the season a day late and six players short Friday night at Yankee Stadium against the American League East-leading Red Sox, COVID-19 reminding us once again that we haven’t quite returned to pre-shutdown normalcy and probably can’t unless more folks get vaccinated. The Yankees couldn’t get any sort of groove going despite Aaron Judge’s best first half since his rookie season, and now Judge headlines the sizable list of positive-testing talent? Yeesh.

So let’s see how they respond to this. Will they embrace their clear underdog status, envisioning themselves as John McClane in “Die Hard” and, figuring they have nothing to lose, play a looser brand of ball?

If they can’t save this season and their beleaguered manager Aaron Boone, can they at least elevate both?

“Paper is paper and the game is the game, so anything’s possible once it’s 7:05 and the game starts,” said Gerrit Cole, who will start Saturday night’s game. “We could get a couple of bounces our way. We could get a couple of bounces that don’t go our way. Whether you have super-talented players or not, at some point you’re going to have to persevere through what the game has thrown at you.”

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Giancarlo Stanton and the Yankees have hit a crucial part of the season.
Giancarlo Stanton And The Yankees Have Hit A Crucial Part Of The Season.
AP

Added Boone: “I think we very much understand the opportunity at hand and obviously know we’re dealing with some adversity and a tough situation. But we’ll try to embrace that as best we can.”

By losing Judge, Gio Urshela, Kyle Higashioka, Jonathan Loaisiga, Nestor Cortes Jr. and Wandy Peralta to the coronavirus — for variety’s sake, Luke Voit took his third trip of the season to the injured list as his surgically repaired left knee barked — the Yankees got hit, metaphorically speaking, by a truck, “an invisible microscopic truck that sometimes has a lot of horsepower,” Cole added helpfully.

Their revised starting lineup caused Rougned Odor to trend on Twitter because the second baseman, designated for assignment by the Rangers earlier this season, hit third, and it also featured Trey Amburgey making his major league debut, while the Yankees bench had another guy (Hoy Jun Park) brand new to the big leagues, as well as two more (Greg Allen and Rob Brantly) who hadn’t played in the majors since last year.

With what they have left, the Yankees can’t stack up on paper to the Red Sox, Rays or Blue Jays, the three teams leading them in the division. As perfect 2021 karma would have it, the schedule lines up the Bosox seven times (Thursday’s COVID-19 postponement will be made up next month) and the Rays three times before the July 30 trade deadline; besides Loaisiga, probably none of those on the IL will be back before the Red Sox flurry concludes. Giving up future resources for short-term upgrades just might not be worth it, and these Yankees simply aren’t built for any sort of significant selloff.

Hence comes the potential freedom of having nothing left to lose. When I asked Cole whether this development might actually alleviate the pressure surrounding this underachieving club, the ace replied: “That can be your opinion but respectfully, we just don’t have much time to think about those things. … Our preparation today is the same as it always is whether the personnel in there are the ones that we usually have or that we have extra help, we really can’t afford to think about it any other way. And that’s just the players’ mindset.”

Fair enough. Nevertheless, you might recall that Ryan’s 2009 Jets made the playoffs after their coach announced their obituary. Even if the Yankees can’t pull that off, they’d sweeten a sour season by showing some fight as they take their toughest punch in a campaign already dominated by them.

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