Before the 2020 season was originally supposed to begin in late March, the Yankees were considered among the World Series favorites. Most of the team that won 103 games last season and reached the American League Championship Series was back. And they had added one of the best pitchers in baseball, Gerrit Cole, to address a starting rotation weakness.
Then came epic twists and turns: the coronavirus pandemic, followed by a four-month pause, a rebooted but truncated 60-game season with many virus restrictions, a hot start by the Yankees, a repeat of last year’s injury nightmares, a dangerous slump and a torrid recovery in the nick of time.
“That’s 2020, baby,” as Yankees Manager Aaron Boone has often said throughout the year.
Despite a 10-2 loss to the Boston Red Sox on Sunday, the Yankees qualified for the Major League Baseball playoffs when the Seattle Mariners lost to the San Diego Padres, 7-4, later in the day. It will be the Yankees’ fourth straight year in the playoffs, and their 22nd time in 26 years (since the start of the 1995 season).
With a ticket to October assured, the Yankees (31-22) have seven games left in the regular season to finalize their seeding in the new postseason format. For this pandemic affected season, M.L.B. owners and players agreed to expand the postseason field from 10 to 16 teams — eight from each league.
During their 5-15 slide earlier this month, the Yankees fell to the eighth seed. During their 10-game winning streak, they jumped to the fourth seed. They fell to the fifth seed with Sunday’s loss in Boston. The top four seeds earn the right to host the first round of the playoffs in their ballparks — a home-field advantage the Yankees desire given their 21-7 record at Yankee Stadium this season.
“Obviously it’s a little bit different because of no crowd, but in a lot of ways teams are built for their home ballpark,” said Boone, whose batting lineup is adept at taking advantage of the closer wall in right field in the Bronx.
Catching the Tampa Bay Rays (35-19), who held a three-and-a-half game lead in the American League East, will be a tall task. The three division winners in each league earn the top spots in the playoffs. The Yankees, who won last year’s division title, went 2-8 against the Rays this season.
After the first round of the playoffs, the next two stages — the American League division and championship series — will be held at neutral sites in Southern California. The World Series is slated to begin Oct. 20 in another neutral site, Arlington, Tex.
Despite all of their spending, star power and savvy, the Yankees have not reached — or won — the World Series since 2009.
The 2010s was their first decade without a pennant since the 1910s. By giving Cole a record nine year $324-million contract this winter, the Yankees felt they secured the missing piece to put them over the top.
Two of the Yankees’ past three playoff exits were in the A.L.C.S. and at the hands of the Houston Astros, who admitted to cheating during their 2017 World Series winning season and were punished. Despite a 27-26 record through Sunday, the Astros are poised to reach the playoffs again.
To reach the postseason themselves this year, the Yankees overcame 15 different players spending time on the injured list, such as standouts Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, D.J. LeMahieu, James Paxton and Tommy Kahnle. During a regular 162-game campaign last year, the Yankees set a major league record by sending 30 different players to the I.L.
While the Yankees prevailed over their many ailments in 2019 because of their depth and unheralded stars, it was more of a struggle this year. They endured slumps and inconsistencies throughout the roster, from catcher Gary Sanchez to outfielder Brett Gardner.
Their lineup, powerful and healthy evvel again, has been carried most of the season by first baseman Luke Voit (who led the majors with 21 home runs through Sunday) and LeMahieu (who led the majors with a .361 average through Sunday), with help from outfielder Clint Frazier and third baseman Gio Urshela.
Led by Zack Britton and Chad Green, the Yankees’ pitching strength of recent years, their bullpen, has remained stout. But their improved starting rotation — anchored by Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and Cole — may benefit them in October since there are no longer off days during the first three rounds.
Before Sunday’s game, Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino said the team had not discussed how they would celebrate clinching a playoff berth. (During olağan years, teams usually do so with Champagne and beer celebrations in the clubhouse.)
“I don’t even know if we will,” he said. “I think we’ll acknowledge it, but for us, we’ve been thinking about this as, ‘Just get your foot in the door and go from there.’”