ANAHEIM, Calif. — Look at it this way:
If the Yankees’ season were a basketball game, they’ve been hit with a tough whistle early in the game. A batch of starters are in foul trouble, and need to sit until halftime, and so there is only one goal in mind: don’t let things get out of hand.
John Chaney, the great Temple coach was the first one who implemented a steadfast rule that if you get a second foul in the first half you sit: no questions, no negotiations, no bargaining.
“I’ve never won a game in the first half,” Chaney once said, “but I’ve damn well lost more than my share in the first half. You gotta cut your losses and be ready to pounce. And there ain’t no pouncing if you go into halftime with three and four fouls.”
The Yankees continued to perform some mystical baseball magic Tuesday night, winning for a fifth straight time, and seven out of eight, surviving a bullpen meltdown for the third straight day in handing a 7-5 beating of the Angels thanks to some brilliant pitching from Domingo German and Luis Cessa and some timely hitting by the likes of Mike Ford and Thairo Estrada (and, yes, the odds you could’ve gotten for writing THAT paragraph before the season started were about a zillion to one).
“There’s a feeling in there,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, pointing at his clubhouse “Everyone feels like they’re contributing because that’s the case. We’re a little beat-up, facing adversity and we need everyone to contribute on any given night. Lots of different people are doing their job.”
Even if the Yankees had been at full strength — and that includes everyone who didn’t break camp (Didi Gregorius, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, Aaron Hicks) as well as those who’ve broken down subsequently (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Miguel Andujar) — they weren’t going to clinch the American League East by May Day.
They are 13-10 on the year. Even if everyone was around, and if they’d been able to overpower the favorable early-season schedule they’ve merely been able to grind through, what would that record be, best case? Maybe 18-5? Maybe 17-6? The magic number would still be about 140.
Too early to cinch anything.
Not too early to blow everything, however. And look: what the Yankees’ absences have mostly done is form something of a handicap index, as if they were in a bowling league or a golf tournament. The Orioles and the Royals and the White Sox have short lineups, unpredictable bullpens, razor-thin benches? Well, now so do the Yankees.
So this is exactly what the Yankees have needed to do during this stretch: be cautious, be careful, keep the game manageable while their stars deal with foul trouble — or, in this case, injury-list-level injuries of various debilitation.
Because here’s the thing:
In the same way Chaney would happily take his chances trying to overcome a second-half deficit with his three starters rested and still owning three fouls to give, the Yankees can look forward to a similar return. The Rays may have done a nice job, in lieu of the scuffling Red Sox, in making sure there is a hot team to catch in the East. But they won’t stay hot forever.
And the Yankees won’t be hobbled forever.
“For now,” A.J. Happ said the other night, “we need to just keep doing what we do, keep on doing what we’re doing.”
They will get Sanchez back Wednesday. They will get Hicks back, and Stanton. It may be a while for Judge, but he’s coming back, and so is Severino. Gregorius will be back. There are still some questions about Andujar and Betances that need more certain answers but right now there is no reason not to believe they’ll return at some point.
Best of all for the Yankees, it seems likely they will be at their fullest by the time the schedule starts to bare its teeth, just before the All-Star break and then in August, when they’ll spend 17 of the 31 days away from Yankee Stadium.
The version of the Yankees in July and August will bear only slight resemblance to what we are seeing now. The foul trouble will be behind them. As long as they can keep doing as they are doing — stalk sea level, break even, maybe keep a game or three above .500 — they will be fine. The Sox certainly aren’t going to run away and hide anytime soon. Neither are the Rays, despite the early speed. The Yankees need to keep doing what they do.