Every excuse was at the Yankees' disposal, waiting for them in the clubhouse after the game, when they arrived at the ballpark Monday in Cincinnati. They were coming off an 18-inning marathon the night before in Chicago, leaving them short on sleep and thin on arms and without rising star Aaron Judge.
If they lost to the Reds in an interleague game, no big deal. It would have been easily dismissed as an off night in May after an extended game and travel, a deep breath in Game 30 of 162. But because they found a way to win, yet again, the Bronx Bombers reaffirmed they have something special brewing.
Masahiro Tanaka pitched seven strong innings. Reserve outfielder Aaron Hicks had two hits in another big day at the plate. Brett Gardner hit another home run. The Yanks banged out 13 hits and coasted to a 10-4 victory, giving them a 20-5 record since they opened the season with four losses in five games.
Based on the evidence, the Yankees are for real.
Even the most intense members of the anti-Yankee establishment have to admire their play in the first month. The Yanks woke up Tuesday with the best record in the big leagues. They had scored nearly six runs a game and allowed fewer than four, making them in the only team in the top five in both categories.
The Yanks won 10 of 12 games before Tuesday's game in Cincy. They came back from 9-1 and 11-4 deficits to beat the Orioles last week. They were trailing the World Series-winning Cubs, 2-0, and down to their final strike last Friday when Gardner hit a three-run homer in the ninth, to start a sweep.
Judge, who rested Monday with bumps and bruises that accumulated over 28 games of diving for balls and crashing into walls, has emerged as the centerpiece of their rebuilt core. He was batting .317 and had 13 homers, tied for most in the majors. He was in the top five in nearly every meaningful statistical category. His bomb against Baltimore had casual fans talking for three days about about exit velocity.
The 6-foot-7, 282-pound right fielder is the best story in baseball, a refreshing alternative for New York baseball fans who have grown tired of Matt Harvey and the Mets.
Judge hasn't hit .300 on any level since a 65-game stint in Class A Charleston in 2014, his first professional season. In training camp, Hicks battled him for the starting spot in right field and was devastated when he didn't win the job. Barely a month into the season, Judge is one of the game's most feared hitters.
At age 25, with only 55 games and 185 at-bats on his big-league resume, he's just getting started. And he's still learning how to hit.
Remember, the Yanks were without catcher Gary Sanchez, who last year became the rage after hitting 20 homers in 53 games. He was sidelined for nearly a month with a strained biceps. Shortstop Didi Gregorius has played only 10 games after injuring his shoulder. Only recently have the Yanks had both in the lineup.
Gardner extended his hitting streak to 11 games Monday. He had six homers in his past nine games (and six this season) after hitting seven in 148 games last season. Starling Castro was hitless in eight at-bats in the marathon against the Cubs and still led the AL with a .355 average among hitters with 100 or more plate appearances.
Tanaka is 5-1 with a 4.36 ERA. Twenty-something starters Luis Severino, Michael Pineda and rookie Jordan Montgomery were a combined 7-4, and each had sub-3.90 ERAs. The bullpen, which came through with 11 innings in the series finale against the Cubs, had a 7-3 record with a 2.60 ERA, fourth best in the bigs.
Love the Yankees or loathe them, you can't help but appreciate them.
Ready for three-match
Is there any way we can fast-forward the NBA playoffs and get straight to the Cavalier-Warriors in the Finals for the third straight year?
Both teams sailed through the first two rounds with eight consecutive victories. The Warriors had an easier time in the West, beating the Trail Blazers by an average of 18 points and the Jazz by an average of 15 points. The Cavs appeared to regain their championship competitiveness against the Pacers and Raptors.
Cleveland will be even better once Kevin Love gets going. Love had nine or fewer points in three of his last five playoff games and nine or fewer rebounds in four of his last five. It's a matter of time before the court opens up for him while teams immerse themselves in slowing down LeBron.
The issue with both teams is that rest is a precursor to rust. They could be sitting around for more than a week before starting the next series. Both teams are so much better than everybody else that they'll be plenty sharp when they meet in the Finals rubber match.
If the Capitals fall to the Penguins in Game Seven, bet the ranch on Alex Ovechkin taking the brunt of the blame. After all, he has only eight points in 12 playoff games and scored two measly goals in the first six games against Pittsburgh.
The criticism would be misguided.
Pittsburgh has been committed to taking away time and space from Ovechkin, limiting his effectiveness. Toronto did the same thing. He can play better, sure, but any player in the NHL can be neutralized on a given night or a series.
It comes at the expense of creating mismatches elsewhere. Niklas Backstrom is terrific on his own, but Ovechkin's presence makes him considerably better. Same goes for T.J. Oshie, who had 12 points in the postseason, and Justin Williams, who had nine. They're not being stalked like Ovechkin.
Evgeny Kuznetsov had three goals and six points in four games – three Caps' victories after they were down 2-0 in the series – and helped them force a seventh game. He can thank Ovechkin, who has made a big impact without piling up big numbers.
Jazz star Gordon Hayward could return next season, but it sure seemed like he was saying goodbye Monday night while acknowledging fans chanting his name as Golden State put the finishing touches on their series.
"That was really cool," Hayward told reporters after the game. "I've done a lot of growing up here in Salt Lake City, and for them to stick with me and stick with us through the downs that we've had, it means a lot. I have nothing but love for this community, so that was pretty special."
Hayward turned himself into one of the NBA's better small forwards, and he'll be in high demand as an unrestricted free agent. He's coming off a career year in which he led the Jazz in scoring (21.9 points per game) and was third in rebounding (5.4) in the final season of a four-year contract worth $62.9 million.
Never mind the money. There's plenty available in the open market. He could reunite with Brad Stevens, his coach at Butler, in Boston. The Celtics need to take pressure away from Isaiah Thomas. The Pacers could be interested, too, especially if Paul George lands elsewhere. Hayward grew up in suburban Indianapolis.
"It wasn't pretty at the end, but I got it done and that's all that matters." – John Daly on his one-shot victory on the Champions Tour, his first professional victory since 2004, after finishing with three straight bogeys.
48 – Strikeouts combined, a record for one game, by the Yankees and Cubs in New York's 6-5 win in 18 innings. The Yanks whiffed 26 times, tying the mark set by the California Angels against Oakland on July 9, 1971.
6-11 – Height, in feet and inches, cleared by Montana high school freshman high jumper Trey Tintinger, a world record for 14-year-olds.
0 – Game Seven victories in the previous four years for the Ducks after building 3-2 series leads in the postseason. The Ducks led the Oilers in the series, 3-2, before getting forced into a winner-take-all contest Wednesday against the Oilers.
- Buffalo's television market is typically strong in football and almost always near the top in hockey regardless of the teams involved. The region was fourth in TV ratings for the Kentucky Derby behind Louisville (naturally), Fort Myers and Cincinnati.
- Three qualities I remember most about Jason Botterill during playing stints with the Sabres from 2002-04: Quiet, honest, intelligent. He wasn't blessed with the same talent others had, but nobody questioned his effort or integrity.
- Nashville has more talent overall starting with PK Subban, but the Predators remind me of the 1998-99 Sabres that played for the Stanley Cup. Both were built around great goaltending with sound defense and balance up front making up for their lack of a top-end scorer. What stands out most, however, is their hunger.