MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Yanks reveling in unlikely upstart identity

Judge, Castro, comeback wins fueling early 2017 success

Yanks reveling in unlikely upstart identity

CHICAGO -- There's something about the Yankees. It's more than having Aaron Judge in the cleanup spot, Gary Sanchez behind the plate and all those power arms in the bullpen. It's an evolution of belief, and it is fun to watch.

The Yankees entered this season unburdened by outside expectations and the internal dynamic that comes from having perennial All-Stars like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann on the roster. They're quickly growing together and discovering how much fun it can be to be on an upstart team in New York.

You could see it in the way that Brett Gardner joyously circled the bases after his go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth inning on Friday at Wrigley Field, when the Yanks had been one strike away from a 2-0 loss. Ditto in how they relentlessly pounded the Cubs' fifth starter, Brett Anderson, in the first inning of Saturday night's 11-6 victory.

These fellows are 19-9. They're also amazingly lathered up for early May.

"He was drooling coming around the bases," third baseman Chase Headley said about Gardner's home run trot. "When he got in the dugout, he was drooling."

Gardner's three-run shot in 9th

That 3-2 victory on Friday marked the seventh time the Yankees had won after trailing through five innings. It paled alongside two comebacks they made against their American League East rivals, the Orioles.

New York was 1-4 out of the gate and seemed headed for another loss on April 9 in Baltimore, trailing 3-2. The Yankees tied the score in the eighth on a homer from Judge and then scored four in the ninth to win. That was small potatoes compared to what they did against the Orioles on April 28, when they turned around a 9-1 deficit to win 14-11 in 10 innings.

Must C: Yankees rally on homers

"Those kind of comebacks do a lot for a team,'' said Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who broadcast Saturday night's game for FOX. "You start to believe that you can do magic. It means a lot. Gardner hits that home run [Friday], and you think, 'Maybe this is going to be a magical year.'"

The Yanks' 18-5 run that started with the Camden Yards comeback is getting the attention of the Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays, who were expected to fight for the AL East title.

This does not look like a team that is waiting to pounce after the 2018 season, when Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Brian Dozier and others could be available as free agents.

Joe Girardi was encouraged when he saw his Yankees fight down the stretch in 2016, going 32-26 in August and September -- after Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Ivan Nova were traded -- to extend the franchise's streak of winning seasons to 24, the second longest in Major League history. A quiet, productive Spring Training added to his sneaky feeling that the Pinstripes were underrated.

Looks like Girardi was right, and this is not an entirely new phenomenon. The Yanks are 92-70 in their past 162 games. They had a .545 winning percentage after getting off to an 11-17 start in 2016, but they still finished fourth in the AL East, their first time out of the division's top three since 1992.

With Judge and former Cub Starlin Castro leading the way, the Yankees are leading the AL in scoring -- a nice trick considering they were 12th in 2016. They're producing 5.8 runs per game, up from 4.2 last year.

Castro's two-run homer

Judge's 13 home runs are among 47 they've hit. That total also leads the league; they were 11th with 183 in 2016, but they have set an early pace for 272.

That pace is unsustainable, sure, but it will be interesting to see if the Yanks can match the powerful Orioles in home runs. That's fighting fire with fire, as Baltimore hit 253 homers last season, with five players hitting at least 25.

Statcast: Judge's 435-ft. homer

Starting pitching is the Yankees' big question, but that's another area where confidence is growing.

The rotation that includes Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia and Luis Severino is only 10th in the AL in ERA, but it has made it through the season's first five weeks without an injury or significant performance issue.

Tanaka has eased concerns about his elbow, working six-plus innings in each of his past four starts. He delivered a rare "Maddux'' at Fenway Park on April 27, finishing off a complete-game shutout with fewer than 100 pitches (97).

Tanaka's three-hit shutout

Tanaka goes into his turn on Monday at Cincinnati having won four starts in a row, with a 2.51 ERA in that span. That's how general manager Brian Cashman envisioned him pitching when he gave him his seven-year, $155 million deal before the 2014 season.

Rookie lefty Jordan Montgomery, who beat the Cubs on Saturday night, has filled the No. 5 starter's spot nicely. He's pitching with the confidence that carried him to a 5-0 record and a 0.93 ERA in five NCAA Tournament starts for the University of South Carolina.

Beware of writing this off as a blip on the radar or the product of small sample sizes. The Yanks have a very dangerous mix of veterans and ultra-talented newcomers, and a manager who has always done a good job putting the pieces in the right places.

As much fun as it's been watching the Yankees gain confidence, it will be fascinating to see where they can go from here.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.