Thursday had a familiar feeling for the Yankees in a frustrating second half of the season: one step forward and another one back. Nestor Cortes, an All-Star starting pitcher for his stellar first half, was reinstated from the 15-day injured list and was scheduled to start against the Minnesota Twins. Nursing a strained groin muscle, Cortes had missed two and a half weeks of games.
But the return came with an accompanying setback as D.J. LeMahieu, the versatile infielder who had been struggling at the plate, was placed on the I.L. with inflammation in his right second toe. The injury, which came as the team’s massive division lead has been slowly crumbling, has undermined LeMahieu for some time. He had not played since Sunday and he had hit .187 with one home run in 27 games in August and September. He tried to manage the injury with some rest, but to no avail.
LeMahieu became the 15th Yankee on the I.L. — and that is in spite of the recent returns of the All-Star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (Achilles tendinitis), the All-Star closer Clay Holmes (back spasms) and Cortes. The injured Yankees alone could make up most of an entire squad. They include starter Luis Severino; infielders Anthony Rizzo and Matt Carpenter; outfielders Harrison Bader and Andrew Benintendi; and the relievers Zack Britton, Chad Green, Michael King and Aroldis Chapman.
Some of those players have been out for all or most of the season (Britton and Green). Several joined the I.L. in the past two weeks (Chapman, with an infected wound stemming from a tattoo; Benintendi, with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist; Rizzo, with headaches related to an epidural injection for his balky back).
Thankfully for the Yankees, who had 25 regular-season games remaining entering Thursday, some of those key players are working their way back to the field. Severino and Britton have been pitching in the minor leagues as they hope to return this month. (Bader might make his Yankees’ debut by then, too.) But it is hard not to compare the state of the Yankees now to their first half, when everything seemed to go right and they were, at one point, on pace to match a major league record for wins in the regular season.
On July 8, the Yankees held a 15½-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East. Since then, they had gone 22-31 entering Thursday’s game. Their margin over the Rays fell to four games on Saturday. Four straight wins since, including three against the Twins, improved their lead to five games. With three more games left against the Rays this season, starting Friday, the Yankees are still in prime position to claim their first division crown since 2019. But what will their health look like come the playoffs?
When healthy, LeMahieu, 34, is a steadying force in the Yankees’ lineup. It is what earned him a six-year, $90 million contract with the Yankees before the 2021 season.
But he has been compromised by injuries the past two seasons. After hitting .336 with 36 home runs in 2019 and 2020, his first two years with the Yankees — the 2020 season was shortened to 60 games because of the pandemic — LeMahieu has hit .265 with 22 home runs since. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Yankees’ offense — with the exception of the star outfielder Aaron Judge — has struggled of late, too.