Just when things started to turn south for baseball’s best team, the Yankees turned to a young man of the south, the heretofore practically unknown JP Sears, a fresh face from South Carolina with a 95-mph max fastball that plays better than its gun readings, a wicked breaking ball and a penchant for strikes.
It turns out the little lefty was just the surprise star for a day the Yankees needed to change the story and punctuate their rough, regrettable week with a string of scoreless frames and a needed win.
It’s too early to know if a star was born in The Bronx, or whether the shortish Sears (he’s listed at 5-foot-11) can carry his sparkling first major league start into a great career, but he did give the Yankees something positive to talk about as he limited the Orioles to three hits and two walks over five shutout innings in a 2-0 Yankees victory.
Sears was optioned back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after the game. Nevertheless, he helped turn the page after several days of injuries, illness and, of course, one memorably idiotic episode involving Josh Donaldson, who remained home with COVID-19 symptoms four days after he mocked beloved White Sox star Tim Anderson, crossing the line and drawing a well-deserved one-game MLB ban.
A lot of bad stuff suddenly has been happening to the would-be juggernaut Yankees, but Sears wrote a happy chapter with a practically seamless start, walking two, striking out five and befuddling the Orioles through his 83 pitches. While the newcomer is 26 years old, and didn’t have the kind of buildup to match the reality (he’s less famous than the wild-haired YouTube comedian by the same name), there is reason to believe he may be more than a one-hit wonder.
For one, while he lasted until the 11th round of the 2017 draft, he was a Golden Spikes finalist as one of the nation’s top collegiate players, from The Citadel, and led the nation in strikeouts despite possessing a fastball that fails to light up radar guns.
For another, he recently dominated at Triple-A, carrying a 0.83 ERA, 30 strikeouts to only two walks in six games before his latest call-up.
Sears picked right up from there, winning the game and saving a week gone wrong, a time dominated by troublesome injuries, annoying illness and that one absurd episode by Donaldson, in which he taunted Anderson by calling him “Jackie,” understandably raising the ire of Anderson and everyone on the South Side of Chicago (and many other places). The Yankees also had lost four of six for the first time during their superb start, but it was the pain and suffering — and absences to come — that are perhaps most worrisome.
“It’s been a tough couple days for us, just with people going down and things,” manager Aaron Boone said.
“[Sears] was huge for us.”
This was huge for them after what has been going on.
The injured list, which had been almost universally avoided, is ominously populating quickly. High-priced closer Aroldis Chapman, who with some irony has an Achilles injury as well as being the Yankees’ Achilles’ heel, started the trend, and unfortunately the injuries and illnesses mounted quickly.
Star slugger Giancarlo Stanton (right ankle inflammation) and key reliever Jonathan Loaisiga (right shoulder) joined Chapman on the shelf, and if key table-setter DJ LeMahieu (left wrist) has to join them all, exactly half the new “big four” (different than the Core Four) of their prodigious lineup would be out. Donaldson is one of a handful of Yankees suffering from COVID-19 symptoms lately, though Joey Gallo and Kyle Higashioka returned to the lineup Wednesday.
“Adversity is coming for you. You’ve got to be able to weather the storm … the season doesn’t stop for anyone,” Boone said before the game.
Let’s face it, a year like 1998 comes only once every 100 years, and while there was some early hope, knowing that the calendar has turned to the 21st century, the reality is that a 162-game slate is littered with pitfalls. Alas, some real issues are starting to show.
Of greater interest to Yankees fans is how unsightly the team’s play has been lately, at least by the standards of the champions we crowned by mid-May. Unmistakable cracks are starting to show.
“Every team deals with issues and injuries,” Aaron Judge said. “It comes down to, when you get punched, can you get back up.”
Sears said he was a little anxious, especially after the first two Orioles reached base. He had 50 pitches through two innings, but catcher Higashioka settled him, advising him to “attack the zone.” Afterward, you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. “Awesome,” Sears called the day.
This may be the Yankees’ first real test of the 162-game slate. That they still hold baseball’s best record at 31-13 is amazing. It may seem at the moment like they have 99 problems. But as long as No. 99 isn’t one of them — and Judge remains healthy and on his 63-homer pace — eventually, they should be OK.
And as long as kid call-ups like Sears — who Judge touted pregame as a real talent — make moments matter and deliver like this, they’ll have far less to worry about.