The Yankees are a very good team. That is no surprise. But the most encouraging part of their best start in 15 years — 24 wins, 10 losses — is the killer instinct that shows up repeatedly, even after they have proven the point.
The best teams are the greediest. They enjoy the meal, but won’t savor it until they grab the last slice of cake off your plate. As the Boston Red Sox arrive for a three-game clash starting Tuesday, the Yankees have been on a merciless tear.
They played 18 games in 18 days, in three time zones, and won all five series. They staged ninth-inning comebacks to finish three of them, all against playoff teams from last season. Gleyber Torres joined the party in progress, on April 22, and the Yankees have lost only once since he arrived.
No everyday player since 1900 had ever started and won 14 of his first 15 games before Torres, a 21-year-old shortstop who is shining at second base. He is not surprised.
“Not really,” Torres said on Sunday. “I mean, that team is super awesome. The bullpen, the starting pitchers, everybody is super good. Any opportunity we have, everybody helps do the job.”
It was Torres’s turn on Sunday, and he ushered out the Cleveland Indians with a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was the second home series in a row to end with a three-run blast by a young Yankee cornerstone that sealed a series sweep.
Gary Sanchez did it to the Minnesota Twins on April 26. In between — with no travel days — the Yankees swept the Angels in Anaheim, Calif., and took three of four in Houston from the World Series champion Astros.
“When we started on this, I looked at it as this 18-game snapshot, because we knew we didn’t have an off-day so we knew it was going to be a grind against a lot of great teams,” Manager Aaron Boone said.
“What’s been cool about it is we’ve shown we can win in a lot of different ways. We’ve won pitchers’ duels. We’ve won when we’ve had to scratch against the other team’s closer. We’ve won when we’ve really swung the bats in a massive way and run away with something. The starting pitchers have been incredibly consistent, the bullpen’s been strong, and I feel like our defense has continued to get better.”
That about covers it: close games and blowouts, hitting and pitching and defense. The only cause for concern is that, while the Yankees have a better record than 28 teams, they trail the Red Sox. The Yankees are 18-3 since the teams last tangled at Fenway Park, but still looking up in the standings.
The Red Sox are 25-9, and they seem like themselves again. Remember last season, when they won the American League East but finished last in the league in home runs? Now they lead the majors in slugging percentage. Mookie Betts bruised his right shoulder on Sunday, but that should not slow his Willie Mays impersonation: a .355 average with 13 homers. Boston’s five-year, $110 million investment in J.D. Martinez (.349, 8 homers) looks like a steal.
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The ace Chris Sale, who pitched on Sunday, will miss this series. The left-hander Drew Pomeranz faces the Yankees’ Luis Severino on Tuesday, with David Price against Masahiro Tanaka on Wednesday and Rick Porcello versus C.C. Sabathia on Thursday.
The more anticipated matchup, if it happens, is Joe Kelly against the Yankees’ Tyler Austin. Kelly, the hard-throwing Red Sox reliever, plunked Austin at Fenway on April 11, payback for Austin’s spiking Brock Holt with a slide at second base.
The brawl that followed has made Kelly a hero in Boston — he got a standing ovation at a Bruins game a few days later — and inspired a promotion at the Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox series with the Yankees’ affiliate over the weekend. Fans named Joe or Kelly got in free, and the team auctioned an autographed Joe Kelly boxing glove, among other items, for his charity.
Austin, for his part, had little to say on Sunday about the rematch.
“I don’t want to get into all that right now,” he said. “I just want to enjoy this day off. But I think we’re all excited to play Boston. I feel like we’re taking every day like that: we’re coming out to compete and win ballgames, whether it’s Boston or whoever it is.”
On Sunday it was Cleveland, and a top closer, Cody Allen, who could not protect a four-run lead. Mike Clevinger had one-hit the Yankees through seven shutout innings, but he walked Neil Walker to start the eighth. With one out, he walked Austin and left the game.
Walker, a 10-year veteran, is new to the team, a mid-March signing whose price dropped so steeply on the open market (one year, $4 million) that the Yankees could not resist. They were already covered in professional hitters and versatile infielders, but they got greedy. They got better.
Walker’s double tied the score in the ninth, and he scored when Torres’s homer won it. Walker loved how Torres did it: falling behind in the count, taking three balls, running a full count and then hammering the sixth pitch of his at-bat over the center-field fence. It is the same approach Walker sees in Miguel Andujar, the rookie third baseman who singled to end Friday’s win.
“Guys are in there trying to do something to keep the ball rolling, not just hoping to get a hit but taking what’s coming,” Walker said. “That’s a hard lesson to learn as a player, so it’s really interesting to see guys like Gleyber and Miguel putting together really good at-bats — not just in the first inning and middle innings, but in the late innings. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, and you’re not seeing guys do that.”
They are not getting caught up in the moment. They are making the moment theirs. Now the Yankees face the only team that has done it better this season, the one rival who always matters most.