The Yankees have tip-toed around the obvious for a few weeks, tip-toed around the notion that they were struggling and allowing the Orioles and the Rays to rumble back into the race in the American League East. As long as the Yankees had a lead, even if it was a dwindling, they could still talk about how they were alone in first place and they were fine. But that changed on Tuesday night.
Once it changed and once the Yankees fell into a first-place tie with the Orioles, Kevin Long, the batting coach, offered a candid assessment of how this free fall has impacted the batters. While hitters are taught to focus on the next pitch or the next at bat, it is natural for them to also wonder about how a once-sturdy lead has disintegrated.
“There’s some pressure, obviously,” Long said. “You get a 10-game lead and it’s down to zero. There’s some added pressure and guys are probably trying to do too much.”
The Yankees are trying to emerge from a drought in which they have gone five straight games without mustering more than six hits in any contest, their worst such stretch since 1990. When players like Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano have excelled, Long has been praised for helping guide them. Now that so many Yankees have faltered, Long must figure out how to spark these slumping hitters.
So what is Long’s solution to erasing the slump? It’s nothing dramatic. Long said the Yankees need to “relax” and “trust their ability.” But, interestingly, Long also stressed that the Yankees, who lead the Major Leagues with 203 home runs, must be more cognizant of playing small ball. They have to push pitchers to deep counts, advance runners and maybe even bunt a little bit, Long said.
“Obviously, we’ve lived on some home runs and that’s been well talked about,” Long said. “But, at times like this, it might be moving a runner. That’s just as important as hitting home runs.” He added, “Sometimes, it’s not about getting a pitch and hitting it over the fence. It’s about grinding out an at bat, maybe walking, trusting your teammates. All that stuff comes into play and, right now, we need it more than ever.”
As the Yankees try to muster any offense, Long said they “might have some guys bunt that you don’t normally see bunt.” That would be surprising strategy since the Yankees have had only 20 sacrifice bunts all season. Giving away outs isn’t the smartest decision for a team that is already having problems scoring runs. In addition, Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki are the only regulars who seem comfortable with bunting. But Long was serious about possibly using the bunt as an offensive tool.
In Tuesday’s game, Alex Cobb whiffed Nick Swisher on a changeup with runners on first and second and no outs. Cano followed by hitting into a double play. Maybe, Long said, the Yankees would ask Swisher to bunt in that situation if it occurred again. But Manager Joe Girardi dismissed that idea.
“That’s not really our approach,” Girardi said. “We’re not the Bronx bunters.”
For 84 straight days, the Yankees were in sole possession of first. But they have lost 25 of their last 44 games and have helped turn the A.L. East into a race where three teams are separated by one and a half games. Long was candid about how much the Yankees have lost and equally candid about how quickly they need to make an about face.
“Again, I think the biggest concern here is we’ve lost our cushion,” Long said. “So we’ve got to turn it around and we’ve got to turn it around in a hurry.”
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