WASHINGTON — So far, one step into this sprint of a baseball season, the Yankees have not hit too many damn home runs.
Think of it this way: They enjoy their first off day as undefeated despite not out-homering their opponents.
The Yankees’ rain-shortened, 4-1 victory over the Nationals Thursday night at Nationals Park, the launch to this most bizarre Major League Baseball campaign, showcased Gerrit Cole’s toughness and savvy in his Yankees debut; the only hit he permitted was an Adam Eaton solo blast. It underlined that the coronavirus remains a most worthy foe and challenging hurdle, as the Nats’ best position player, Juan Soto, learned of his positive COVID-19 test earlier Thursday.
And it served as a soft opening for what the Yankees hope will be a beastly offense once more. Against future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer, Aaron Boone’s guys offered tiny-sampled promise that they can replicate their 2019 strengths: Mixing up their attack and delivering with runners in scoring position. Also striking out less, though that didn’t really happen with 11 Ks against Scherzer.
“A number of really good things happened,” Boone said late Thursday night. “Contributions from a number of guys in the lineup.”
One guy stood out: Giancarlo Stanton, who played in only 18 regular-season games and five postseason games last year due to a flurry of injuries — and probably would have missed Opening Day this year if not for the shutdown — came up with two outs and Aaron Judge on second base and crushed a two-run, 459-foot, 112.2-mph, first-inning homer off Scherzer, accounting for the first runs of 2020. Then, in the fifth inning, Stanton lined a bases-loaded single to right field to score Gio Urshela for the night’s final run.
In all, the Yankees went 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position, as Stanton delivered both of those hits.
“That’s the most important time of the game,” Stanton said. “Sometimes you get one a game, sometimes you get one every three games. This time I had three at-bats with runners in scoring position. [It was] good to execute in two of them.” In the third inning, with Judge on second base and two outs again, Stanton struck out.
Last year, the Yankees led the American League with an .890 OPS and .290 batting average with runners in scoring position, a marked improvement from 2018, when they placed fifth and sixth in the AL with a .784 OPS and .253 batting average, respectively, in those clutch situations. On a similarly positive track, the Yankees struck out the seventh-most times in the AL (1,437), a bump in the right direction after posting the third-most Ks (1,421) in Boone’s first season as manager (yes, they struck out more, yet at a lower increase than MLB overall).
As a result of these upgrades in performance and contact, the Yankees scored 943 runs, tops in the industry and a marked uptick from their 2018 total of 851, which put them second. As per the Elias Sports Bureau, after leading baseball two years ago with 50.8 percent of their runs attributable to round-trippers, they dropped to fourth last year even though their percentage rose to 51.1 percent.
You can attribute some of this positive change to the virtual disappearance of Stanton, who led the 2018 Yankees (and trailed only the White Sox’s Yoan Moncada in the major leagues) with 211 strikeouts and posted a modest .241/.322/.379 slash line with runners in scoring position, and the arrival of DJ LeMahieu, who contributed a team-leading .327 batting average while striking out just 90 times and going a remarkable .389/.438/.570 with runners in scoring position. If Stanton stays healthy this year, he would help the Yankees greatly by mixing in some timely hitting with his prodigious power as he did Thursday.
Judge contributed the other RBI, doubling home Tyler Wade from first base in the third inning after Wade — starting for LeMahieu, who missed time with the coronavirus — drew a leadoff walk. Wade also provided a drag-bunt single in the fifth that set up Stanton for his third RBI, a nice inning of non-homer baseball.
Hitting becomes harder in the playoffs, as the Yankees relearned last year. It’s best to approach October, however, with many weapons and approaches. One game in, the Yankees used a few of them, an encouraging forecast of what they can do.
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