It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between the 2017 Yankees and their world championship club from 1996. Both teams were assembled with a shrewd, careful blend of established veterans and blossoming youngsters, and whether or not the franchise wins its 28th title this October, there’s a sense of a dynasty looming — reminiscent of what the fans’ mindset was during the mid-90s.
But perhaps it’s more precise to compare this season’s squad to one that was more so on the brink of success, according to former Yankee catcher Jim Leyritz.
“I would put this team around 1994-95 before I would put them at ’96,” Leyritz told Bronx Pinstripes in a phone interview on Friday. “I think overall, this season opened up everybody’s eyes. I don’t think anyone realized what was in store. I thought the team this year was basically going to figure out how many of these young kids could actually be legit major league contributors for the New York Yankees. I think we all thought if they played a little better than .500, it’d be a great year.”
In early April, FiveThirtyEight.com projected the Yankees to finish the regular season campaign with 79 wins, and their 24-percent chance to reach the postseason was also the lowest mark in the American League East. Of course, the franchise’s pseudo-rebuild didn’t go according to plan, as they attained an over-abundance of success with a trip to its first ALDS since 2012. And after a miraculous 0-2 comeback against the defending AL champion Cleveland Indians this week, the Yankees commence an ALCS matchup with the favored-Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Friday night.
While the Yankees’ journey to this point doesn’t truly remind Leyritz of 1996, the distinct possibility of them having to face Astros’ aces Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander twice presents challenges that do compare to New York’s tall order of defeating baseball’s defending champions 21 years ago.
“That is where you can draw comparisons to ’96. When you look at the Atlanta Braves with three Hall-of-Fame pitchers [Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz], we didn’t have much of a chance,” Leyritz said. “The one thing that’s always told in history is usually in a seven-game series, the best team wins. And in a five-game series, anything can happen, and I think we just saw that with the Yankees and Indians.
“I think in a seven-game series coming up with Houston, usually the better team wins. But, there’s always that team like us in ’96 that surprised people. Or maybe there’s that one big swing like my home run [in Game 4 of World Series] that no one would have ever thought would happen, yet it changes the entire momentum of the series. That still can happen with this young team. I think it’s going to be a great series. I think the Yankees have a great shot at it. On paper, Houston looks like they should win this series, but that’s the beauty of playing this game, and with the talent the Yankees have and being young, I don’t think these kids are going to be caught up in the moment.”
Even if these Yankees fail to reach the Fall Classic, there still isn’t much pressure for them to get there, as for the first time in recent memory, they’re looked upon as a playoff underdog. Regardless of the outcome, Leyritz, who’s been at Yankee Stadium for nearly every game this summer, still believes this team is close to achieving something special.
“You have to tip your hat to [Yankees manager] Joe Girardi for the job that he’s done, just being able to get these kids to believe in themselves,” he said. “The way you need to get players to buy into the postseason is that it’s one day at a time. And that old saying of, ‘You’re only as good as your next day starter’ is really the truth.”
Yankees’ right-hander Masahiro Tanaka will oppose Keuchel in Game 1 of the ALCS, with first pitch scheduled for 8:08 p.m.