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The Yankees welcomed fans back to their Stadium with the familiar. A Bernie Williams ceremonial first pitch. The “Y-M-C-A” in the fifth inning. “God Bless America” after the top of the seventh.
For the home team, there also was this unfortunate familiarity: Gleyber Torres is a second baseman playing shortstop and the Yankees remain challenged to score when the ball does not clear a fence.
The optimism that greeted both Williams and Gerrit Cole delivering initial pitches in 2021 had faded nearly four hours later when what remained of the 10,856 spectators booed throughout the bottom of the 10th inning as Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton and Torres struck out to end a frustrating 3-2 loss to the Blue Jays.
It had been 531 days since the Yankees won ALCS Game 5 over Houston; their previous home game in front of fans. Neither time nor the COVID-19 pandemic that caused the absence dimmed the ability of even a 20 percent capacity crowd from rendering Bronx cheers in reaction to one futile late-game at-bat after another.
“It’s part of it,” Aaron Judge said. “Those fans want to watch winners, want to watch us win. They let us know when we don’t do our job. And we didn’t do our job today.”
Judge was a main culprit, grounding into a double play with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh of a tie game and whiffing with two on to close the ninth. The Yanks had the leadoff runner on in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and with the automatic man on second in the 10th. They never scored. Overall, the Yanks were 3-for-19 with men on base and hitless in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position. Beginning with Judge’s double play, the Yanks closed the game 0-for-10 with men on base with seven strikeouts.
Aaron Boone mentioned that he could feel the returning crowds “ready to erupt” late in the game. They did. In derision. It was particularly pointed toward the Yankees’ other hulking slugger, Stanton, who whiffed in each of his final three at-bats, each time with the tie-breaking run on base.
The oft-injured Judge and Stanton had started together in just 33 of the Yankees’ 222 regular-season games the past two years. But their presence together was not a positive Thursday. They were 1-for-10 with five strikeouts and Judge’s instrumental double play. They are part of an offensive philosophy that accentuates power that at times leaves defensive shortcomings — notably at short.
Torres is shoehorned there and the Yanks want to believe improved conditioning will lead to better defense. But Torres failed Cole when the ace needed him most. Cole allowed three hitters to scorch the ball to open the second inning. The “softest” of the trio was a leadoff 102.6 mph grounder to Torres’ backhand by Teoscar Hernandez. It was no easy play. But a good shortstop makes it. Torres didn’t, and when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. delivered missile singles, Toronto led 1-0.
In the ninth inning, Torres nonchalanted a considerably softer Hernandez grounder into a gift leadoff single. Darren O’Day pitched around the faux pas. But this is the kind of close game in which mistakes magnify.
And in the Yankees’ 119th home opener, only one position player performed well. Gary Sanchez hit a two-run homer in his first at-bat. He threw out Randal Grichuk trying to steal to end the seventh. In the bottom of that inning with the score 2-2, Sanchez led off with an infield single. Clint Frazier’s one-out single and a DJ LeMahieu walk filled the bases before Judge grounded into his double play.
Sanchez led off the ninth with a walk. Mike Tauchman pinch ran and stole second, but Jay Bruce struck out. Tauchman stole third. The walk-off run was 90 feet away with one out. But after Frazier walked, LeMahieu nudged the ball to third against a drawn-in infield and Tauchman was thrown out at the plate before Judge struck out.
“A lot of missed opportunities on my part,” Judge said.
In the top of the 10th, with the automatic runner on second, Toronto delivered the clutch hit that escaped the Yankees — Grichuk’s leadoff RBI double that made it 3-2. Julian Merryweather then needed just 11 pitches to fan the side in the bottom half. Boone mentioned the shadows making tough hitting conditions.
But is there even a shadow of a doubt about a Yankee offense that also was mostly dormant in spring training? After ace Hyun Jin Ryu was relieved in the sixth, Toronto unleashed five righty relievers against the Yanks’ predominantly righty lineup and they produced 4 ²/₃ shutout innings with eight strikeouts.
“As long as we continue to post [stay healthy] we will get that [offense] rolling — sooner rather than later,” Boone said.
But it already is too late for an important date on the baseball calendar — to elate fans returning to Yankee Stadium.
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