• The Yankees couldn't keep up with their early-season success once key contributors Matt Holliday and Starlin Castro cycled on and off the rosters with injury. As the duo returns, so are the Yankees' winning ways.
By Kenny Ducey
September 04, 2017

NEW YORK -- You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s back.

There was a time in mid-June the Yankees were the second-best team in baseball, destined for their first deep October run in seven years. Sending five starters to the All-Star game seemed possible, 50 homers for Aaron Judge seemed probable and attendance began to rise after a steady three-year decline. On June 12, New York was 38–23, leading the majors with 358 runs scored, and had allowed the second-fewest at a total of 241. What would immediately follow—an ugly seven-game stretch out west against the A’s and Angels—was simply a bump in the road. What came after was a gut punch.

On June 26, when second baseman Starlin Castro limped off Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago with a strained right hamstring, the Yankees were suddenly without three of their hottest hitters. Castro, along with Matt Holliday and Aaron Hicks, both of whom went down with injuries in the days prior, would be shelved for weeks. Several players from Chris Carter to Rob Refsnyder were inserted into a patchwork lineup that would go 4–9 through July 14, knocking the Yankees down to third place in the AL East, 4 ½ games out of first place. Though Holliday and Castro would return for brief stints they returned to the DL in short order, unable to produce at the levels they did to open the season.

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The Yankees treaded water for a month or so, fending off challengers for their wild card spot, and lacked the promise they once had. It just seemed like a division title wasn’t in the cards; Masahiro Tanaka and his unsightly ERA were the first apparent issue, followed by Judge, who hit a wall after the All-Star break. A slew of deadline acquisitions gave the Yankees some immediate relief, but seemed only to cement their spot as a wild-card team. They needed something to put them back in the race. That something was the same exact thing that got them in the race in the first place.

First Hicks returned with a bang, clubbing a late go-ahead homer against the Red Sox and making a game-saving outfield assist on Aug. 11 that jumpstarted a 6–3 stretch. Now, it’s Castro and Holliday that have been welcomed back into the fold.

On Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, the lift they can provide was on full display. Holliday slugged his second homer in as many days, a solo shot off Chris Sale that put the Yankees ahead 2–0. Castro provided more fireworks two innings later, lacing a game-sealing three-run double into the rightfield corner to make it 7–1, and is now 11-for-34 since returning from the DL. The Yankees climbed to within 3 ½ games of Boston, re-introducing themselves into the division race behind their All-Star second baseman and run-producing DH.

“It’s the veteran presence that you want in your lineup. They’re guys that are used to playing in big situations and driving in big runs,” said Joe Girardi. “We missed those two guys.”

Before coming down with an illness on June 25, Holliday hit .339 with runners in scoring position and slugged 15 homers in 68 games. Castro seemed poised for a career year, hitting .313 in 73 games before going down with a strained hamstring. The two have been performing at a high level for years now (Holliday has been around a while longer), and with Castro getting on ahead of him the Yankees are poised to perform like they did at the start of the season.

“He’s just a professional, he knows how to have quality at-bats in big situations,” Chase Headley said of Holliday. “He’s a big part of why we had so much success early.”

All of this is not to discount the incredible month of August that Gary Sanchez has enjoyed, or Luis Severino’s breakout campaign—those two have provided a surge for the stretch run as well. The two are just much-needed reinforcements to help compete with the Red Sox, who had beaten the Yankees in two separate series, and perhaps eventually with league-leading Astros.

Though the injury bug found Hicks again during the Boston series (manager Joe Girardi said his strained left oblique shouldn’t keep him out long), he did his part to help the Yankees go. Now, Castro and Holliday are back to do theirs. Perhaps we underestimated the Yankees, failing to see why they had what they had back in June. It turns out two players with 11 All-Star appearances between them can make quite the difference.