A sure sign of “normalcy” returning to the Yankees is not playing in front of 20 percent capacity, especially when those who attended the game had to follow a rigorous set of COVID-19 protocols.
It was a somewhat normal Opening Day with the baseline introductions in front of fans, who then watched Gerrit Cole in person for the first time. It certainly was a welcome change for anyone after 60 games in front of cardboard cutouts in road games and piped in crowd noise at home.
The normalization aspect of the fan experience came through the three-letter sound emanating from the mouths of some who decided to yell “Boo” at various points in a frustrating 3-2 10-inning loss to Toronto.
“It was awesome,” manager Aaron Boone said. “It really was. You could feel their energy. You could feel them waiting to erupt there when we had some chances to take the game late. We just couldn’t push through for them.”
It was first game in front of fans since winning Game 5 of the 2019 ALCS back on Oct. 18, 2019 when over 48,000 fans watched James Paxton outduel Justin Verlander to keep the season alive. A majority of the same lineup from that night was in place to perform in front of 20 percent and other than Gary Sanchez it was a rough showing and by the late innings boos were loud, well at least as loud at 20 percent of a capacity crowd can make.
A majority of boos were reserved for Giancarlo Stanton, who struck out three times in a 0-for-5 showing, similar to one of his first games of the 2018 season. He was part of a lineup whose top four hitters went a combined 1-for-18 with nine strikeouts.
It was a further reminder of what the Yankees can look like when they are not able to get a homer. As much as everyone enjoys homers, the art of finding other ways to score is equally as desirable and when it unfolds the way it did, the boos start emerging.
“That’s part of it,” Aaron Judge said. “Those fans, they want to watch winners. They want to watch us win. And they let us know when we don’t do our job. We didn’t do our job. There was quite a few opportunities, especially me at the plate with guys in scoring position.”
Judge was likely referring to what unfolded when he came up with the bases loaded in the seventh against David Phelps. Judge got ahead in the count 2-0 and Phelps was forced to throw a strike.
Phelps did just that, getting a called strike on a pitch down the middle. On the next pitch Judge rapped into a double play and three innings later Randal Grichuk’s fly ball went over his head for the deciding double.
The Yankees will hear their fair share of sounds that are not jeers and perhaps the crowds will increase throughout the season. It just was a rough first impression for a team whose inability to hit in the clutch led to their downfall in a five-game ALDS against Tampa Bay last fall in San Diego.
To get to the ALDS, the Yankees batted .432 (16-for-37) and .286 (6-for-21) with runners in scoring position when they swept Cleveland in the wild-card round. Once they encountered Tampa Bay, those numbers dropped to .164 (11-for-67, 23 strikeouts) with men on base and .241 (7-for-29, 11 strikeouts) with runners in scoring position.
The performance in those clutch situations continued a trend from the 2019 and 2018 postseason losses. In the six-game loss to Houston, the Yankees batted .171 with runners in scoring position and in the four-game ALDS loss to Boston in 2018 they batted .154 with runners in scoring position.
Still even with the inability to get clutch hits (3-for-19 with men on), natural sound was welcome after three months of appearing in empty stadiums.
Just to feel the energy of the people in the park was welcome,” Cole said. “My family being here after not being able to see much last year means a lot. It was quite cold early, but it shaped up to be a pretty pleasant day for the most part — outside of the loss.”