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Facing Little Resistance, the Yankees Main Goal Is Health

No one could have blamed the Baltimore Orioles for the sense of hopelessness that must have washed over them during the first inning of Monday afternoon’s game against the Yankees. A familiar script was rolled out the moment Didi Gregorius’s three-run home run cleared the right field wall: Another unforgiving attack by the Yankees against Baltimore’s pitchers, another victory in the Bronx, another pinstriped step forward in an unfettered path to October.

According to Fangraphs, the Yankees have a 99.9 percent chance of getting to the postseason and a 98.2 percent likelihood of winning the American League East. This year’s Yankees have the second-best record through 119 games of any Yankee team since 1952 (only the ’98 edition fared better). Monday’s 8-5 victory over the Orioles in the first game of a doubleheader lifted the Yankees to a season-high 37 games over .500 and a remarkable 45-16 mark within the division.

Unlike the many clubs engaged in fierce battles for division leads or wild-card berths, like the Mets, the Yankees have the luxury of coasting over the final six weeks if they so choose. But Manager Aaron Boone is still busy, mostly overseeing the various rehab schedules of his several injured players.

The prevailing sentiment in the clubhouse remains fierce and forward-directed.

“This club hasn’t won the division in a number of years. A lot of guys talk about that as motivation,” said D.J. LeMahieu, referring to the drought that began after the 2012 season. LeMahieu, a heavy-hitting infielder who was with the Colorado Rockies before signing with the Yankees as a free agent last winter, added, “I’ve been on teams that had to win every game down the stretch just to get to the playoffs. It’s exhausting. You get there and you have nothing left.”

James Paxton, who picked up the win in Monday’s first game, agreed with the idea that such a successful summer has only sharpened his teammates’ focus.

“We obviously love our lead, but nothing has changed in here since April or May,” Paxton, who was with the Seattle Mariners before this season, said. “Guys are still getting after it night after night.”

Boone boiled down the sentiment into a simple sentence.

“We’re chasing greatness,” he said of his team, which is on pace for 102 victories, according to Fangraphs. Barring an unforeseen crash, Boone will be able to focus on timing the returns of his most dynamic starting pitcher (Luis Severino), the relief corps’ bridge to the ninth inning (Dellin Betances) and one of the lineup’s most thunderous long-ball threats (Luke Voit). All three had made significant progress in their recoveries before the first pitch on Monday.

Severino, who has been on the injured list all season with shoulder and lat issues, threw 29 pitches in a problem-free bullpen session that included sliders and changeups. Betances, who’s been similarly inactive with a strained lat, threw 20 pitches that put his velocity to the test: 17 fastballs and three breaking balls.

“I felt fine today, so I was happy with that,” Betances said. “This is the first time being hurt in the big leagues. It’s been frustrating, but the fun part is about to start, so I’ll be back for that.”

Both pitchers are expected to be at full strength by the end of the month. Boone is hopeful they will return to action in September, when the Yankees will be in the final stages of fine-tuning their playoff roster. They’re just as optimistic about Voit, who’s been out for two weeks with a sports hernia. He ran sprints early on Monday and reported that he felt “pretty much back to normal.” He’ll hit on Tuesday for the first time since being injured and could begin rehab games at Class AA within two weeks.

Despite the long list of injured players, the Yankees have continued to flatten weaker opponents. Monday’s wipeout of the Orioles was no exception, as they slugged four home runs, including a 461-foot blast by Gio Urshela off Gabriel Ynoa in the fifth inning. The ball left the ballpark quickly enough that Urshela sheepishly admitted that even he was surprised.

“I didn’t know I had that,” Urshela said. Inside the clubhouse, several teammates, including Severino, teased Urshela about his in-game impression of the club’s strongmen, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

“He said now I have the power,” Urshela said with a laugh, repeating Severino’s words.

Urshela was only following the season-long narrative against the Orioles: Not only have the Yankees beaten Baltimore 14 of 16 times, they’ve hit 56 home runs against them, the most by any team over a single opponent in a single season in major league history. And the news only gets worse for the hapless Orioles. Including Monday’s nightcap at Yankee Stadium, their pitchers still had three more games against the Yankees before they could mercifully leave town.

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