NEW YORK — Long before first pitch was scheduled to be thrown on Thursday in the Bronx, there was a buzz in the air at Yankee Stadium.

The opener of a four-game series between the Yankees and Red Sox didn't just mark the beginning of the second half for Major League Baseball, it was the conception of a stretch for the home team that's poised to play a significant role in deciding their fate this season.

Fresh off the All-Star break, the Yankees sit eight games back in the division, hanging on to a tie for third place. Doomed by inconsistencies, injuries and even occasional ineptitude, a team with championship expectations has been forced to grapple with the notion of missing the postseason, potentially selling off pieces at this month's Trade Deadline.

Meanwhile, the team cruising atop the American League East is the Red Sox, a club that's proven this summer they're not going anywhere. 

Rather than the chorus of gloves popping and bats cracking during batting practice and pregame warmups, however, both teams retreated into their respective clubhouses hours before game time. Something wasn't right.

The Yankees found themselves in the midst of their second COVID-19 outbreak of the year, a developing situation with three players already testing positive for the virus and three more—All-Star right fielder Aaron Judge, Gio Urshela and Kyle Higashioka—in COVID-19 protocols with pending cases. 

Now, as of Friday morning, the number of confirmed cases sits at six. Judge, Urshela and Higashioka join pitchers Jonathan Loaisiga, Nestor Cortes and Wandy Peralta, testing positive for COVID-19. Barring any false positives, each of those players will be on the COVID-19 injured list for 10-plus days. 

The good news is that no additional players have tested positive as of Friday morning, per Jeff Passan of ESPN. As we've seen with this pandemic in the past, however, that's subject to change. New York will continue to undergo contact tracing and additional testing, working through the league's health and safety protocols. 

"We'll just tackle it as best we can," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Thursday. "First and foremost, obviously, anyone that's testing positive, making sure we're helping them be as healthy as can be."

Among the latest group of players to test positive for COVID, most are vaccinated, said general manager Brian Cashman on Thursday. New York eclipsed the 85 percent vaccination threshold weeks ago, but not every member of the player pool has elected to take the precaution, a choice that Boone called a "deeply personal decision."

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Those that are vaccinated fall under the umbrella of breakthrough cases, similar to the group of eight individuals to test positive for COVID-19 within the organization back in May. Gleyber Torres was originally viewed to be the ninth individual in that group, but Boone revealed on Thursday that the shortstop had a false positive. 

As much as all parties involved are now tasked with handling this added speed bump in what's been a tumultuous campaign, it's hard not to acknowledge the implications this outbreak will have on New York's pursuit of a playoff spot going forward. 

New York was scheduled to open the second half with eight of their first 10 games against Boston. Needing to make up ground in the division with maximum efficiency, the importance of these two series against their rivals cannot be overstated. 

Sure, New York plays Boston (as well as Tampa Bay and Toronto) several times in the months of August and September. Yes, an eight-game deficit in the division—less than five games in the AL Wild Card race—with 70-plus contests remaining is surmountable. But playing without the likes of Judge and Loaisiga, possibly losing more key contributors to the COVID-19 injured list and racking up additional postponements to backload the schedule with doubleheaders will put this club at a disadvantage.

New York avoided any postponements during their last outbreak a few months ago, but they were forced to fill in for multiple coaches—including third base coach Phil Nevin and pitching coach Matt Blake—for quite some time. Torres ended up missing seven games.

Missing Judge, Loaisiga, Urshela and more is a massive blow. It's fair to say that those first two names have been two of the most consistent contributors on this roster thus far, players this team needed to count on in order to make a run as the calendar flips closer to October. 

Plus, who knows which other players will be affected as more tests come back in the coming days. 

That's not to say Trey Amburgey—who was called up on Thursday—and other minor leaguers can't fill the void until certain big leaguers are healthy and cleared to return. It's just not going to be the unit that Cashman built and Boone intended to pencil in each day, a group that's already struggled mightily to fulfill expectations.

At the very least, any additional postponements will likely take off days away from this club later on in the season, or add doubleheaders to the schedule. That makes the stretch run that much more of a challenge and takes away opportunities to go on a run before July 30 (possibly changing how Cashman approaches the Trade Deadline) .

The pressure to perform between the lines was already present for this team. This developing situation makes New York's quest for a birth to the postseason that much tougher. 

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