Major League Baseball
Yankees learn valuable lessons without Juan Soto while narrowly avoiding sweep vs. Dodgers
Major League Baseball

Yankees learn valuable lessons without Juan Soto while narrowly avoiding sweep vs. Dodgers

Updated Jun. 10, 2024 4:24 p.m. ET

NEW YORK — It didn't take long for the Yankees to get used to Juan Soto's bat in the lineup, but it quickly became a form of torture for their offense to operate without him.

To open the first two Soto-less games of the Dodgers-Yankees series, the Bronx Bombers went 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position and left 19 men on base. Yankees fans were so tired of two straight days of nonsense from the lineup that, when backup outfielder Trent Grisham was at the plate with two outs and runners on the corners in the sixth inning Sunday, the crowd erupted into a loud "WE WANT SOTO!" chant. Message received. 

Grisham, one pitch later, proceeded to slam a three-run home run — off Tyler Glasnow, no less — to right field, giving New York the lead for good. The Yankees defeated the Dodgers 6-4 on Sunday night in the Bronx to fend off their first sweep of the season. Message delivered.

Grisham might as well have told the crowd to settle down and grow up as he rounded the bases, a straight-faced look of retribution accompanying his trot until he reached the Yankees dugout and sheepishly smiled with his teammates. The Yankees can learn something from Grisham after he loudly responded to the crowd's rude reminder that the club was missing a high-energy superstar. After the game, Grisham said intense moments like that help him get even more locked in at the plate. In his next at-bat, the crowd chanted: "WE WANT GRISHAM!"

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Having an edge goes far in the Big Apple, much further than cowering to critics. It's easy to play into the narrative that the Yankees are lost without Soto, but tougher, and much sweeter, to overcome it. The Yankees will need every player on their 26-man roster to handle difficult challenges in pressure-packed situations the way Grisham did Sunday, and the way the team captain does on a nightly basis, to get where they want to go. 

"Grisham works his butt off every single day," Aaron Judge said in response to the crowd's Soto-inspired chant. "Soto is out right now, he's going to be back soon, and he's been carrying this team all year. Anytime you go up against good teams like this and fans pay to come see us do our thing, they want to see the best out there. Soto's gonna heal up and be fine, but man, Grish is a heck of a ballplayer. 

"He showed up tonight in the big moment when we needed him. I wasn't too happy with [the chant], but I think he got his point across there with that home run."

As for another valuable lesson, Soto saw that even when he's sidelined with an injury, the team will try to pick him up. Like Judge said, Soto has carried the Yankees all season.

His 4.1 fWAR is in the league's top three, and his case to capture his first MVP award only gained traction this weekend. Soto had played in every Yankees game prior to Friday night versus the Dodgers. As timing would have it, he was diagnosed with left forearm inflammation hours before first pitch. The Yankees said it was good news — and it was; any kind of pain that close to the elbow is concerning. Soto was able to avoid surgery (he might even dodge the injured list), and after the collective hyperventilation the fan base experienced, that's a win.

Yet, his absence offered a reminder of what the Bronx looked like without Soto last year, and painted a clear picture of what the club will resemble if Hal Steinbrenner doesn't hand him a blank check as he explores free agency this offseason.

The slugger spent all three games against the Dodgers on the bench. He passed the time by pacing back and forth, refilling Gerrit Cole's drink, and at one point putting his batting gloves on, suggesting he might pinch hit. It was clear he tried his best to bring the same positive energy off the field, but the look of agitation in his eyes from being unable to play told a different story.

Aaron Judge mashes solo homer to extend Yankees' lead over Dodgers

It's foreign for Soto to be a spectator. This weekend was his first time being out of the lineup since Oct. 4, 2022. He played in all 162 games last year, and the first 64 games of this season, too. We can safely assume that, in those 612 days between, something, at some point, had afflicted Soto. He plays the game hard on both sides of the ball. Baseball players, particularly the superstars who don't take days off, are all managing some level of pain as they play through the long season. 

The Yankees (46-21) know that even a physically impaired Soto would've helped them win the series against the superteam Dodgers (41-26). But they played it smart, giving him time to rest and heal his forearm injury with a focus on the future of their season, rather than risk worsening his inflammation by playing in a star-studded matchup that looked and sometimes even felt like the World Series but in reality meant much less.

That prudent decision by the Yankees cost them a megawatt exposure to their flaws.

With Soto sidelined, slumping first baseman Anthony Rizzo moved up to fifth in the order on Friday and Saturday. He went hitless to extend his hard-to-watch June skid to 1-for-29 — Rizzo hasn't homered since May 10 — while the rest of the lineup seemed zapped of its energy and dynamic flow without Soto. Just like last year, the Yankees fell into the trap of Judge basically being their only productive hitter. Until Grisham's statement blast, Judge was responsible for driving in four of the Yankees' six runs against L.A.'s playoff-caliber pitching staff.

Judge smacks another homer as Yankees tie game vs. Dodgers

The Yankees needed two-plus games to adjust to the absence of Soto, further underlining how important he is to the success of the club. But, after two disappointing defeats — the first arriving in extra innings, the second in the form of an embarrassing blowout — the Yankees adapted. 

The third lesson from this Soto-less Dodgers series was demoting Rizzo to the bench Sunday. Boone took the well-liked veteran out of the equation and played switch-hitting Oswaldo Cabrera in the lineup instead. That decision paid off as soon as the third inning, with Cabrera leading off the frame with a solo home run off Glasnow to put the Yankees on the board. 

With or without their best players on the field, the Yankees must continue making unemotional personnel decisions in order to squeeze the most production out of their roster. This weekend was a good step, by benching Rizzo, and they might soon need to address other roster vulnerabilities. There's second baseman Gleyber Torres, sporting an 83 OPS+ in his contract year. Then there's 34-year-old Giancarlo Stanton, outproducing last year's career-worst campaign (107 OPS+ compared to 86 in 2023) yet clogging up DH when hot-hitting outfield prospect Jasson Domínguez is cranking home runs in the minors like he was born ready for big-league pitching. 

Championship teams are made up of quick adjustments and egoless players sharing the responsibility of winning games no matter what it takes. There are 27 outs and 26 men to get it done. In a series that was dubbed a litmus test for both teams, in the finale, the Yankees overcame the challenge and played like they might just be built to go the distance. It will take learning from valuable lessons to get there.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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