Yankees must find their counterpunching ability: Sherman

DENVER — The list of Yankees shortcomings is long, and it’s growing in disrepute in this disappointing season. That list includes a lack of lefty hitting, defensive acuity and athleticism.

But should we include that the Yankees have a glass jaw?

Are the Yankees fake tough guys? Are they bullies who talk the talk, but tend to get walked off in key moments?

Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge said all the punches the Yankees have taken in the first half should make them more resilient in the second half. Those were the right words delivered Monday during a media session 24 hours before the All-Star Game. But what perhaps spoke louder was the empty seat next to them with the placard overhead that read “Aroldis Chapman.”

Chapman was the lone no-show required to attend the media session. He is at least part of the game — as opposed to all four Astros named to the AL team, who begged out for one reason or another. It sure did seem, however, as if those Astros were not at the game because they didn’t want to deal with any questions or lingering resentment from fans and fellow All-Stars over Houston’s involvement with illegal sign stealing in 2017.

But I do wonder if Chapman is representative of the Yankees. Immensely talented, but questionably clutch. Preening in good times, overwhelmed in bad. In the sticky-stuff portion of this season, when he was pumping 100 mph-plus and delivering one devastating slider after another, Chapman was as nearly unhittable as he had been at any point in a largely unhittable career.

New York Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman is pulled in the seventh inning
Aroldis Chapman may be emblematic of a much bigger Yankees problem.
Corey Sipkin

In the less glue-y part of the season, however, Chapman’s stuff has regressed, so has his success level and so has his confidence. The defiant, boasting stare has been replaced by bewilderment and despair. During Saturday’s 1-0 win in Houston, Aaron Boone allowed himself to be talked out of going to Chapman, with two out and one on in the ninth inning, by Cole. On Sunday, the manager did not even warm up Chapman as Chad Green was giving away the last of a five-run lead to send the Yankees into the break with what feels like a seven-way tie for their worst loss of 2021.

The final blow was delivered by Jose Altuve, part of the contingent of Astros who shunned the All-Star Game. But against the Yankees, the little Altuve has stood tall. Against them, he has two more walk-off homers — one off Chapman to clinch the 2019 ALCS and one Sunday off Green — than Judge has hit in his whole career.

Altuve’s homer Sunday came a day after Judge homered and tugged at his shirt to troll the Houston second baseman for his refusal to have his jersey removed after that ALCS walk-off. That refusal led to speculation that Altuve was hiding a buzzer that alerted him to what pitch was coming.

Did Mike Brosseau have a buzzer when he homered off Chapman in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the AL Division Series last year, pretty much handing the series to the Rays? Was there ever a better standing-up-to-a-bully move, since the previous month, Chapman had airmailed a fastball over Brosseau’s head and was suspended because it was so blatantly intentional?

And should Judge already have learned a trolling lesson? In 2018, the Yankees won Game 2 of the Division Series at Fenway Park, and Judge loudly played “New York, New York” while passing the Red Sox clubhouse. The Yankees returned to The Bronx and lost the next two games and the series at home. The Red Sox then played “New York, New York” in their clubhouse after winning the World Series — their fourth this century.

There is a theme here. The Astros, Red Sox and Rays are all good at standing up to the Yankees. There is no mystique or aura any longer — perhaps that disappeared when they moved into a new stadium that is more placid mall than gladiatorial hellhole. Maybe it is about the mix of players. Whatever happened to The Savages? The past two years, the Rays’ guerilla style of roster construction and play, for example, has distracted and unnerved the Yankees.

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees hits a solo home run
Aaron Judge might want to focus more on the home runs and less on the trolling.
Getty Images

The Yankees begin the second half with four games against the Red Sox at home and they will play seven of their first 10 post-break games against Boston before three at Tampa Bay. Those games will be defining in many ways. The Yankees already are 0-6 against the Red Sox, and if that starts growing toward 0-10 in The Bronx, there will be a toxic level of fury and humiliation.

And the Yankees must contend with a Red Sox squad that, under Alex Cora, plays with an aggression and real confidence that they lack. On Saturday against the Astros, in a 1-0 game, Tim Locastro reached first with one out in the fifth inning and Brett Gardner reached first with two out in the ninth inning with Kyle Higashioka up. Neither time did the Yankees attempt a steal. Speed is pretty much Locastro’s and Gardner’s skill. Why are they even on the team if Boone is not going to demand a steal try in that spot?

You can build a team that sits around and waits for homers. But what you get is a horrible combo of passivity and bullyism — if you land the punch, you win, if not, you absorb all the punches. There are no counters. Can the Yankees summon the fight to get off the ropes of this season or do they really have a glass jaw?

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