ARLINGTON, Tex. — As the Yankees have flexed their considerable muscle in the last month, giving the rest of baseball a peek at what an Evil Empire reprise might look like, an often-overlooked component of their sizzling run has been their starting pitching.
Still, October is a long way off and engendering confidence that anyone in the rotation beyond ace Luis Severino can regularly deliver command performances is a shaky proposition.
Some insurance for C.C. Sabathia’s fragile knee, Masahiro Tanaka’s balky splitter and Sonny Gray’s case of the nibbles would seem in order.
So, as the Yankees look for ways to separate themselves from the Boston Red Sox in the coming months — and perhaps later the defending champion Houston Astros and the Cleveland Indians — it may be hard to get Tuesday night’s game out of their heads.
Cole Hamels, the veteran left-hander with a sturdy playoff résumé, continued to deliver the type of performance a World Series contender would covet, shackling the Yankees for seven innings in the Texas Rangers’ 6-4 victory at Globe Life Park.
Hamels allowed two runs on solo homers by Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar and little else before the Yankees threatened late on a two-run eighth-inning home run by Austin Romine. Keone Kela pitched a perfect ninth, leaving Aaron Judge on deck when the game ended.
“He’s still Cole Hamels,” center fielder Aaron Hicks said. “He’s still a great pitcher.”
It was a rare miserable night for the Yankees, who lost for just the fifth time in 27 games and dropped a half-game behind Boston in the American League East.
Manager Aaron Boone was ejected in the sixth inning by the home plate umpire Pat Hoberg for persistent carping from the dugout — the first ejection of Boone’s nascent managing career. It was also an abbreviated night for catcher Gary Sanchez, who — unable to prevent three wild pitches in the second inning — was replaced in the bottom of the sixth because of cramping in his calf.
Hamels was responsible for a great deal of the Yankees’ agony, allowing only four hits, striking out seven and walking two. The home run by Torres was the only hit the Yankees managed through five innings. And the walks were by design, as Hamels pitched around Sanchez with a runner on base in the fourth and the sixth, and took his chances with Didi Gregorius and Tyler Austin, who did not hit the ball out of the infield in those at-bats.
It was the type of savvy performance that Hamels has been showcasing of late. He has a 1.88 earned run average in his last four starts — all against playoff teams from last year: the Red Sox, Indians, Astros and Yankees.
As the Rangers, who have been troubled by injuries, sit in last place in the American League West, it seems all but certain that Hamels will be on the trade block as the non-waiver trade deadline on Aug. 1 nears.
“You don’t want to be sitting at home while everyone else is having fun,” said Hamels, 34, who was the World Series most valuable player with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, and struggled the following year in a Game 3 Series loss to the Yankees.
He added: “It’s the biggest stage and the biggest moments, and it tests you. Having it at such an earlier stage in my career, the excitement is there but I don’t think you understand it. Now, with where I’m at, I understand what it is and what it’s like and the feelings and the emotions, and that’s what you go for.”
Boone dismissed the idea that the Yankees might have used Tuesday night to evaluate Hamels, hinting that it was too early to consider such pursuits.
“I don’t even really think that’s very much on our radar right now,” he said. “I don’t read into that or look into that. I just look at it as a good pitcher was able to beat us tonight.”
Whenever the Yankees’ chase for starting pitching begins in earnest, they have plenty to offer — young, major league-ready talent in Clint Frazier, Austin, Jordan Montgomery, Brandon Drury and Andujar, along with younger prospects from one of baseball’s richest farm systems.
Hamels, who is making $23.5 million this season, would be attractive on several counts: He is an impending free agent, he is not likely to cost as much in prospects, and because he is a free agent, it would not impinge their pursuit next winter of Patrick Corbin, the Arizona left-hander, who could be joined on the free-agent market by Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Those type of pitchers seemed particularly tantalizing on Tuesday night.
Domingo German, who had not pitched since getting raked by the Oakland Athletics for six runs on May 12, was shaky again in his third start since replacing the injured Montgomery in the rotation.
Jurickson Profar lined a three-run homer to center field in the first inning and the Rangers added two more runs in the second in a fit of wildness. German hit a batter, walked two more, and Ryan Rua reached when he struck out and the ball bounced away from Sanchez, whose flip to German at home was not quick enough to beat the headfirst slide of Robinson Chirinos.
The early lead made it easy for Hamels, who used his changeup to great effect, keeping the Yankees off balance and off of his fastball and cutter.
What Hamels has found most encouraging about his recent run is that he has fully incorporated the mechanical changes that hampered him at times last year after he suffered an oblique injury.
And while he reiterated what he said Monday — that he wants to help pitch the Rangers back into contention and mentor young pitchers — he also knows that he may be pitching for an opportunity.
“Teams want you — it’s an amazing thing,” he said late Wednesday night in a nearly empty clubhouse. “When the day comes when teams don’t want you, it’s going to be a disaster. It’s an opportunity if you’re doing well and teams recognize that and they want your services, it’s kind of an honor to be able to do so.
“That’s the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing today — and will be continuing to do — is to, I guess, get that sort of respect for those services.”