<
>

A month after the fire sale, the Yankees are red-hot

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was precisely a month ago that the New York Yankees traded away Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova in a flurry of activity that was widely interpreted as a running up of the white flag on the 2016 season.

But now, as they prepare to enter the final full month of the season, the Yankees are about to embark on something neither they nor their fans could have envisioned on Aug. 1: meaningful baseball games in September.

Their 5-4 victory in 13 innings over the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday night -- their second consecutive extra-inning win over the defending World Series champions -- left them a mere 2 1/2 games back in the AL wild-card race, trailing only the Houston Astros, the Detroit Tigers and the Baltimore Orioles, whom they'll face this weekend at Camden Yards.

The victory capped a month in which the Yankees won 17 of 28 games. They were a .500 team on July 31. They will be six games over when they return to work Friday night in Baltimore.

Nearly as unexpected as what the Yankees are doing is how they are doing it, and with whom they are doing it.

These are not the Yankees of Alex Rodriguez, Beltran, Chapman and Miller. They are gone. Neither, really, are they the Yankees of Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann, both of whom have had their playing time drastically reduced, although McCann's sacrifice fly did drive in the winning run Wednesday night.

This is a different Yankees team, no longer reliant on big names with bloated paychecks, and minus the safety net of being able to call on three of baseball's most lethal late-inning arms to safeguard their games.

Dellin Betances is still here, of course; he got the final three outs, including starting a key double play, to earn his seventh save of the season after inheriting the closer's job from Miller, who held it briefly after the trade of Chapman.

But the everyday lineup is filled with kids such as Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin, and the bullpen is populated with a revolving cast of pitchers that Joe Girardi has barely met.

Tuesday night, it was Chasen Shreve -- fresh off the plane from Scranton via Buffalo and Chicago -- who threw five pitches, all strikes, to earn the first save of his big-league life.

Wednesday saw a combination of Shreve, Tommy Layne, Adam Warren, Blake Parker, Ben Heller and, finally, Betances. They held the Royals hitless for the final seven innings of the game after starter Luis Cessa had worked the first six, giving up four runs and six hits.

Those four runs came in the first three innings after home runs by Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer left the Yankees in a 4-0 hole that it appeared they would be unable to climb out of. After all, they had gone 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position Tuesday before Jacoby Ellsbury's infield hit in the 10th inning finally won them the game.

This time, they gradually chipped away, getting a two-run homer from Starlin Castro in a three-run sixth inning and tying it on Ellsbury's sacrifice fly in the seventh. From there, the bullpen held the line until the Yankees strung together an infield hit by Didi Gregorius, a double by Castro and McCann's fly to fairly deep left-field.

In fact, they had a great opportunity to end it in the 12th, but third-base coach Joe Espada held Chase Headley at third on Brett Gardner's single, only to watch Royals' right fielder Paulo Orlando airmail his throw over the cutoff man and the backup man, delaying the inevitable result by an inning.

No matter, because once the Yankees pulled even, it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would win this one, even over a Royals team that has been pulling out of its own first-half tailspin and is the only AL team to have posted a better August record (20-9) than the Yankees.

Now the Yankees head to Baltimore with a real chance to make something of this season. In fact, 20 of the Yankees' final 30 games come against the three AL East teams currently ahead of them in the standings, the Orioles, the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays.

"We never felt that our season was over when all those [deadline] moves were made," Headley said. "But to say that you believed that you have a chance to make the playoffs a month ago, that's all fine and good. Until you start playing better and giving yourself a chance, it's a little harder to really believe it. We dug ourselves a pretty good hole at the beginning, but obviously we're in much better position now than we were then. It's fun to be playing meaningful baseball after the way things started back in April."

And the way they continued right up through the trading deadline.

Now, nobody around the Yankees is talking about raising a white flag.

In fact, they are even daring to dream about another kind of flag, one that seemed impossible to imagine only a month ago.