KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Aaron Boone, a former major league third baseman, has a saying for the way Gio Urshela plays third base with such calm and aplomb. “It’s like he’s getting into a warm bath,” Boone, the Yankees manager, has said several times this season.
And with Sunday’s game — and the Yankees’ season-high seven-game winning streak — on the line in the bottom of the 10th inning, Urshela made a slick stop for an out. But when the next batter, Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals, chopped a ground ball toward third base, even the sure-handed Urshela was helpless.
“I thought I had it,” Urshela said later. “But it took a bad hop and nothing I can do.”
From his knees, Urshela watched the speedy Billy Hamilton score from second base to give the Royals a 7-6 walk-off victory. The depleted Yankees (34-18) nearly completed a dramatic comeback against the rebuilding Royals (18-34) after trailing by six runs, nearly rescued their exhausted bullpen and nearly recovered from the worst start of Domingo German’s season.
“We get a bad hop at the end,” Boone said. “Otherwise, I’m sure we would’ve got to them.”
Even with the loss, the Yankees possess the second best record in the American League — an accomplishment given that their injured list grew to a major-league-leading 15 players when relief pitcher Jake Barrett landed on it on Sunday. A combination of a large payroll, modern baseball smarts, a deep roster and unheralded players have carried the Yankees despite many absent stars.
Only the Minnesota Twins (36-16) have better winning percentages in the A.L.
“We’ve got a really good team,” Boone said. “We have a chance to have a special team. It’s still really early in the season.”
German, who has filled in surprisingly well for the injured ace Luis Severino, is one of the reasons for the Yankees’ success. He entered Sunday’s game with a 9-1 record and a Yankees-best 2.60 earned run average.
But against the Royals, German coughed up a season-high seven runs over five innings. He missed more over the middle of the plate than he had recently — and the mistakes were hit over the fence.
“A bad day,” he said. “I failed a lot with my location.”
Light-hitting catcher Martin Maldonado smashed a hanging curveball over the left field wall in the second inning for a three-run blast. Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler sent fastballs over the heart of the strike zone over the fences in the fifth inning. Even a decent pitch, a changeup outside to Ryan O’Hearn in the fourth inning, was flicked over the fence for an opposite field shot.
German allowed just two home runs over the first 38⅓ innings of this season. He has allowed seven over the past 22 innings.
His clunker exacerbated a recent issue for the Yankees. Two starting pitchers — C.C. Sabathia (right knee) and James Paxton (left knee) — are on the I.L. Although the Yankees are hoping Sabathia misses only one start and that Paxton can return this week, their absence has created extra strain on the bullpen — even if it had 10 relief pitchers on Sunday. A doubleheader on Saturday didn’t help.
This is why Boone pushed Nestor Cortes Jr., who has spent most of the season in Class AAA, to four innings of relief even when he ran into a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth.
“The good thing about that is we’ve been using our guys because we’re winning a lot of games and we’re in a lot of games,” Boone said.
The offense nearly saved the day. The comeback started in the sixth inning when Gleyber Torres clobbered his 13th home run of the season, a three-run blast, that brought the Yankees within three runs.
The Yankees’ rally was completed in the ninth inning against Ian Kennedy, who had otherwise been solid for the Royals. Clint Frazier and Urshela each singled. And with two outs, DJ LeMahieu slapped a ball to right field to score Frazier. Luke Voit walked to load the bases, setting the stage for Aaron Hicks, who tied the game with a two-run single.
Fast forward to the bottom of the 10th inning with Jonathan Holder, who had already pitched three times in the previous week, on the mound. He walked Hamilton with one out, a mistake that later hurt. Urshela helped with the second out, bringing up Merrifield.
Late in the day, the infield at Kauffman Stadium is known to dry out, which produces bigger and more unpredictable bounces. Urshela, a godsend for the Yankees during Miguel Andujar’s injury-shortened season, knew this.
The best infielders don’t let the ball create bounces; they often charge and snag the short hop. When Merrifield hit the ball, Urshela stepped toward his right with his glove out, ready to snatch the ball and throw out the fast runner. The ball danced over him.
“You’re dead there,” Boone said. “You just gotta stay in your legs as best as you can. You almost know at that point in the game when it’s dried out — and this isn’t the greatest field anyway — where you’re a little bit at the mercy and you’ve got to fight and try to make a play.”