CHICAGO — When the New York Yankees woke up sometime around midday Monday, rubbed the sleep from their eyes and tried to shake off the hangover of a lost weekend at Fenway Park, a new reality had dawned.
For the last two or three months, the Yankees kept one eye on the standings and the position of the Boston Red Sox, as the two rivals consistently jockeyed for the best record in baseball.
But after a four-game sweep by the Red Sox, punctuated by a midnight collapse in Sunday’s finale, the Yankees find themselves looking not only off in the distance at the surging Red Sox — who hold a nine-game lead — but also studying the rearview mirror.
As the Yankees kicked off a three-game series at the Chicago White Sox with a 7-0 victory to end their five-game losing skid, the red-hot Oakland Athletics were just 2 1/2 games behind them for the top wild-card spot, and the Seattle Mariners, flagging as they are, had closed within five games before the end of their game late Monday.
If the motivation behind general manager Brian Cashman’s flurry of moves at the end of July was to avoid the one-game, wild-card playoff, the Yankees now find themselves with a new impetus: make sure that game is played at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees can always comfort themselves with their own history — they trailed the Red Sox by 8 1/2 games on this date in 1978, later completing a comeback from 14 games back to win a memorable playoff at Fenway Park en route to a second consecutive World Series title.
But at this moment, the Yankees’ biggest concern isn’t the Red Sox, the Athletics or the Mariners. It is themselves.
Their lineup’s lack of depth — Gleyber Torres, whom manager Aaron Boone loved in the No. 9 spot not long ago, batted cleanup on Sunday night — was exposed in the last three games in the series by Red Sox pitchers. But the offense might remain hampered until Aaron Judge (chip fracture in his right wrist) and Gary Sanchez (strained groin) return sometime this month.
Still, the Yankees have more than enough pop in their bats to get by — especially against a schedule consisting almost exclusively of bottom-feeders until Labor Day.
More unsettling is the unraveling of the starting rotation and the increasingly apparent deficiencies of two rookies, third baseman Miguel Andujar and second baseman Torres, who lately have looked more like the greenhorns they are.
Lance Lynn took a step toward rectifying the pitching inadequacies, allowing just two hits over 7 1/3 shutout innings against the White Sox, his first start since being acquired from Minnesota and replacing Sonny Gray in the rotation. If J.A. Happ, who is scheduled to return on Thursday from hand, foot and mouth disease, throws like he did in his one start after being acquired from Toronto — allowing one run in six innings against Kansas City — it would be equally welcome.
The Yankees began Monday ranked 11th in the American League in innings pitched by starters, and before Lynn’s gem, in which he struck out nine and retired 19 straight batters at one point, they had gotten more than five innings out of a starter only five times in 15 games since the All-Star break. Only once before Monday had one of their starters exceeded six innings — in Masahiro Tanaka’s shutout at Tampa Bay on July 24.
“Over the course of the season, if that’s a consistent theme for you, no matter how good your ‘pen is, eventually that ‘pen is going to wear down a little bit,” Boone said. “And I think that can show up down the stretch or in the postseason.”
That’s what happened to the Yankees last year, when their relatively deep bullpen was worn out in the playoffs. Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman all had meltdowns that led to Yankee losses.
As for Andujar and Torres, the Yankees will have to live with their growing pains.
Over the last week, Torres has shown several instances of not hustling — both in the field and in getting out of the batter’s box — and Andujar had a dreadful series in the field in Boston. His role in a botched rundown on Thursday was a pivotal play in the Red Sox’s eight-run fourth inning, and his two errors on Sunday included a bounced throw that would have been the final out.
Torres snapped out of his abbreviated hitting funk on Monday with a single and a solo homer, his 18th of the season. That Andujar was in the lineup at designated hitter was preplanned.
“In the end,” Boone said. “I have no issue with throwing him back out there and worrying about him having just mental issues with dealing with the failures and successes that are inevitable.”
Indeed, for all the Yankees, who arrived at the ballpark here still a little groggy from a late game, a long flight and getting to sleep at dawn, this series felt like a chance to begin setting themselves straight.
“The season is full of ebbs and flows, so you’re going to have your ups and downs, but when you’re not playing well, you want to minimize it,” said reliever Zach Britton, recently acquired from Baltimore. “With a young team, you try to pick them up. The sky isn’t falling. You put together a few good outings and everything feels normal again. This is a good place to do it.”
He meant here, away from a frothy Fenway Park crowd, away from the Bettses and Benintendis, in a place where the Sox that are of concern to the Yankees are no longer red.