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Facing Little Resistance, the Yankees Make Health Their Main Goal

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, and the tale didn’t change throughout a day-night doubleheader sweep: another unforgiving attack against Orioles pitchers, seven Yankees home runs (three by Gleyber Torres), two more victories in the Bronx for the home team, 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 120 games of any Yankee team since 1962 (only the ’98 edition fared better). Monday’s sweep — an 8-5 victory over the Orioles in the first game, followed by a similar 11-8 battering in the nightcap — lifted the Yankees to a season-high 38 games over .500 and a remarkable 46-16 record 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,” D.J. LeMahieu said, 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 had 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.

ImageCreditFrank Franklin II/Associated Press

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 has 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 has 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 will hit on Tuesday for the first time since being injured and could begin rehab games in 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 the games devolved into glorified batting practice for the Yankees. The show featured not only Torres’s blasts, but also a 461-foot monster by Gio Urshela off Gabriel Ynoa in the first game. The ball left the park so quickly that Urshela sheepishly admitted that even he was surprised.

“I didn’t know I had that,” Urshela said. In 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.

But even that feat was eclipsed by Torres, whose solo home run in the first game was joined by three-run shots in the fifth and sixth innings of the nightcap. The soft-spoken middle infielder has slugged 13 home runs against Baltimore this year, the most by any player against a single opponent in one season since divisional play began in 1969.

The Orioles were so unnerved by Torres’s power they intentionally walked him to load the bases in the eighth inning. Torres smiled and said he was “a little” surprised he commanded so much respect from the opposing dugout.

But Torres was only following the season-long narrative against the Orioles: Not only have the Yankees beaten Baltimore 15 of 17 times, they have hit 59 home runs against the Orioles, the most by any team against a single opponent in a major league season. And the hapless Orioles can only anticipate more of the same: Their pitchers have two more games against the Yankees before they can leave town.

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