Despite their recent struggles — relative struggles, to be clear — the Yankees woke up on Thursday morning with the best record in Major League Baseball.
No other team had reached 30 wins nor possessed a winning percentage over .700. At 31-13, the Yankees were off to their best start since 1998, when they won their first of three straight World Series titles. For a team that entered 2022 with questions about whether it had improved enough to make a deep playoff run, the Yankees, through a quarter of the regular season, had played like a championship contender.
But some cracks have begun to form. Entering a four-game series against the division rival Tampa Bay Rays that began Thursday in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Yankees had lost four of their last seven games. Just a blip on the radar for a marathon 162-game regular season, but a noticeable one.
Most significant, though, are a series of injuries to key players piling up after a healthy start to the year. On Saturday, the longtime right-handed reliever Chad Green landed on the injured list with an elbow injury that will require season-ending Tommy John surgery. Since then, the Yankees have dealt with a slew of ailments, testing the depth of the team with the third-highest payroll in baseball.
Outfielder Joey Gallo, third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Kyle Higashioka all spent time this week on the Covid-19 injured list.
D.J. LeMahieu, the team’s versatile infielder who was slowly looking more like his old self after an injury-plagued 2021 season, has been sidelined with a left wrist injury. He underwent a magnetic resonance imaging examination on Tuesday and received a cortisone injection for the discomfort. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone told reporters that LeMahieu was considered day to day.
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Some of LeMahieu’s teammates, though, will need more time. The hard-throwing lefty closer Aroldis Chapman, whose command on the mound had been inconsistent, landed on the 15-day injured list on Tuesday with left Achilles tendinitis. A day later, the key right-handed reliever Jonathan Loáisiga, also in the midst of a skid, joined Chapman on the I.L. with right shoulder inflammation.
Then a far more alarming injury occurred, with outfielder Giancarlo Stanton being lifted for a pinch-hitter during the Yankees’ 7-6 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday with what the team initially called a calf strain.
After an M.R.I., the Yankees placed Stanton, who has struggled with injuries in his Yankees tenure but is leading the team in R.B.I. in this season, on the 10-day I.L. His injury designation was changed to inflammation in his right ankle.
“I just feel like this is something that’s going to be short, but feel like we should knock it out and not mess with it and maybe it becomes something else,” Boone told reporters of Stanton’s injury. “So hopefully, he got out in front of it a little bit, and hopefully it’s just 10 days and he’s back.”
Stanton’s presence in the Yankees’ lineup will be missed: He was hitting .285 with 11 home runs and an .862 on-base-plus-slugging percentage — all second on the team to Aaron Judge.
While Judge has had an extraordinary start to the season, even he cannot carry a lineup alone. And thus the Yankees will have to find answers elsewhere on their roster as they enter a tougher part of their schedule following a recent stretch against several teams with winning percentages under .500, such as the Kansas City Royals, the Texas Rangers and the Orioles.
They should face a much tougher task against the Rays, who won the American League East in each of the previous two seasons but entered this series with a record of 26-17, four and a half games behind the Yankees. Including Thursday, 23 of the Yankees’ next 29 games are against teams with winning percentages above .500, such as the Los Angeles Angels, the Minnesota Twins, the Houston Astros and the Rays.
Higashioka and Gallo returned to action in recent days but they have contributed more with their gloves than their bats this season. Donaldson — whose one-game suspension for “disrespectful” comments to Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson remains under appeal — may be back soon.
Looking for other reinforcements, the Yankees signed Matt Carpenter, a three-time All-Star infielder, to a major league contract on Thursday. Carpenter, 36, spent 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, struggling at the plate in his final three seasons. He signed a minor-league deal with Texas over the winter and hit .275 with six home runs in 21 games with their Class AAA affiliate, the Round Rock Express, before he was granted his release last week.
Despite being hit even harder by injuries than the team’s offense, the Yankees’ strongest unit this season has been its pitching staff. Chapman, Green and Loáisiga are all out, joining the left-handed reliever Zack Britton and the right-handed starter Domingo German on the I.L., but entering Thursday, the Yankees were third in the majors in E.R.A. (3.00) thanks to crucial contributions from the breakout starter Nestor Cortes (1.80 E.R.A.), the versatile Michael King (2.96) and the fill-in closer Clay Holmes (0.38).
On Thursday, the Yankees added a familiar face as a reinforcement: Manny Bañuelos, 31, a former top prospect who, a decade ago, was one of the Killer Bs alongside Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances — a group that was expected to be the future of the franchise’s pitching staff. Only Betances turned into a bona fide major leaguer, developing into a four-time All-Star setup man before a series of injuries sidelined him over the past three years.
Following many ailments of his own, and a winding path that included stops throughout the major and minor leagues, Mexico and Taiwan, Bañuelos signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees over the winter and posted a 2.35 E.R.A. over nearly 31 innings at their Class AAA affiliate. After J.P. Sears tossed five scoreless innings on Wednesday in his first major-league start, the Yankees needed a fresh arm and called up Bañuelos. His next major-league appearance would be his first for the Yankees.
Carpenter and Bañuelos may seem like unlikely fill-ins for a team with a payroll just short of $250 million, but if they can help bridge the gap until the team’s regulars return they will have done their jobs.
“You got to be able to weather the storm and have other guys step up in different situations,” Boone told reporters of his team’s injury woes on Wednesday. “Sometimes it’s in short spurts. Sometimes, it’s longer. That’s part of the grind of the 162-game season. We’re prepared to handle that, we look forward to handling that. The season doesn’t stop for anyone.”