Yankees seeing immediate impact in critical moments from superstar outfielder

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros
Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees have been haunted by Minute Maid Park, a place where they’ve experienced soul-crushing losses regardless of what time of year it is. Whether it’s Jose Altuve sending a rocket over the Crawford Boxes right before the All-Star Break in 2021 or Carlos Correa shooting a ball over the to the right field wall to end Game 2 in the 2017 ALCS, there have been plenty of nightmarish games for the Bronx Bombers in Houston. We saw every situation where they’ve crumbled before in this past four-game set, and you could almost recall the terrifying memory from a loss in Houston.

“It’s like when we let Justin Verlander off the hook in Game 1 of the ALCS”

That’s the first thought you probably had after they grounded into three double plays to open the first game of the season in increasingly more high-leverage situations.

“Jose Altuve is going to stop the sweep like he did in 2021”

And when the Yankees had two-on and two-out in the bottom of the ninth hanging onto a one-run lead, this thought certainly crossed your mind as well.

Instead, it would be a four-game sweep, and in every big spot where it felt like the Houston Astros would spoil the day, Juan Soto was front and center to save the day.

Juan Soto Has Changed the Attitude for the Yankees

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros
Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees’ first run of the season came from an RBI single at the hands of Juan Soto, who sparked a three-run rally in the fourth inning to crack Framber Valdez. Of course, the Yankees would go on to win on Opening Day, opening up a four-game sweep of the Houston Astros, the first four-game sweep against them in franchise history. He wouldn’t just open the scoring for New York though, as he would make a highlight reel throw to gun out Mauricio Dubon at home plate and squash a rally.

In Game 2, it was working a bases-loaded walk to give the Yankees a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish, showing off his excellent plate discipline. His watchful eye coupled with his contact-oriented swing makes him a nightmare for opposing pitchers to face, driving up pitch counts and helping New York do something they were incapable of in 2023. Working the count is important, as you can knock out a pitcher and wear down a bullpen throughout a series, and if the Yankees can continue to do that while increasing their damage output on balls in play, this could be a dominant offense.

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros
Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Juan Soto would continue these heroics in the third game of this series, driving a ball to the Crawford Boxes to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead facing the dominant Bryan Abreu, who allowed just eight home runs last season. He stamped this excellent performance with a go-ahead single against NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader, who is considered the best reliever in baseball to some. Whenever the lights shined bright, Juan Soto shined even brighter. That’s an unfamiliar feeling for the Yankees in recent years, who have found themselves routinely coming up short in these kinds of games.

Back in 2022, they made a trip to Houston after the All-Star Break with a chance to take the season series and establish themselves as the top dogs in the American League, but they were promptly swept. Many fans point to that series as the point where that team became unrecognizable from the one we saw in the first half, a group that would punch right back when they were pushed against a wall, and they’d get swept again by the Astros in the ALCS. One player turned the tide of this series entirely, and that’s the exact reason you bring in such a special player to your roster.

The Yankees got an atrocious series from Aaron Judge, and while some are concerned about him, I think the sane reaction to have is that he’ll turn it around. He had a 93 wRC+ in his first four games to open the 2022 season and took six games to club his first home run, but the key takeaway is that the Yankees were able to score runs and win games without Aaron Judge needing to carry them. When guys like Oswaldo Cabrera and Anthony Volpe slow down, Judge will be red-hot and ready to pick the team up, but that’s not something we’ve been able to say for three years now.

When the Yankees are surrounding Aaron Judge with below-league-average players, you quickly understand why the lineup hasn’t been able to get the job done consistently in recent years. Since 2021, the Yankees with the most offensive runs are Aaron Judge (167.6), Gleyber Torres (21.5), and Matt Carpenter (19.6). Do you see the issue here? If you combine the offensive production from every other non-pitcher to hit for the Yankees, you end up with -108.7, a number you can barely wrap your head around.

These aren’t games the Yankees would have won in the past, and Oswaldo Cabrera has mentioned shifting his approach at the plate because of what he’s noticed from Juan Soto in batting practice. As a whole, they’re far more patient and are generating more ideal launch angles than they have in years past, with this team looking much different from the ones we’ve seen before that struggle to consistently generate hits. Their goal will be meshing that kind of offense with the ability to do damage on contact, which comes naturally to a lineup with Aaron Judge, Juan Soto, and Giancarlo Stanton.

Everything clicked for the Yankees in their opening series, but they’ll have to carry that momentum for the season and try to get off to a hot start amid a tough seven-game road trip. How they battle through a schedule that sees them facing four straight teams that made the postseason last year will be interesing, but if they can continue to wear down starters and hit home runs like they always do, then this team can match up against anybody.

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