Mason: Hunger has fueled Yankees' rise to the top of AL East

The Yankees are on pace to blow past their 100 wins from a year ago (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

BOSTON — It was supposed to be a series with major AL East implications, but instead, this weekend at Fenway Park will be one last chance for New York to bury Boston’s October ambitions.

The Red Sox opened the four-game set 16 1/2 games out in the division, and the Yanks held a seemingly insurmountable 9 1/2-game lead over the Rays, too. What should be a compelling three-team race is an absolute laugher.

Friday afternoon, Aaron Boone’s first questions were about a home run race between Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres, not anything to do with the Sox.

So how in the wide world of sports did we get here?

“They’ve been outstanding since day one,” Alex Cora conceded. “They are where they are because they’ve played better baseball than us. It is what it is. They’ve been very consistent and we’ve been inconsistent.” 

A year ago, the Sox made quick work of the Yankees in the ALDS, but Cora’s club has regressed in a major way this season. That’s no secret.

Whether it’s been awful starting pitching, an overtaxed and undermanned bullpen, or a lack of timely hitting, we’ve examined their shortcomings at great length in this space.

So let’s take a $10-Fenway-Park-beer-half-full approach for a change. 

On the flip side, New York must be doing something well, right? A 100-win team a year ago, they’re on pace to blow past the century mark, and they’ve done it with a slew of injuries befitting the New York Giants. 

So how have the Yankees gotten even better? 

Boone paused for a second and mulled the question over before answering.

“I think they’re really hungry,” Boone said. “Not to say we weren’t last year, because I felt like it absolutely existed last year, but this is a group that a lot of these guys have tasted the postseason and tasted success and failures in the postseason.

“I just feel like there’s been a real good mindset as far as a singular goal. No matter who we’ve brought into the room, and obviously we’re brought a lot of different people up from the minor leagues or from outside the organization based on some of the injuries and adversity we’ve faced, that mindset has not changed on a daily basis. 

“I feel like they’ve done a really good job of no matter where we are in the season, no matter what level of grind it is in the season, that hunger has carried them well,” Boone added. “They, I think in a lot of ways, feel like they have a lot of unfinished business.” 

It’s an intriguing response for a couple of reasons. 

First and foremost, Boone’s repeated use of “they” to deflect his team’s successes speaks to who he is as a leader, and that selflessness is contagious in the visitors’ clubhouse. He deserves a tip of the cap. 

Beyond that, Boone could have come up with any myriad of reasons his team has improved.

He could have credited a changed offensive approach, pitchers spinning the ball more, infielders shifting all over the place, or any other newfound point of emphasis that front offices are stressing in 2019. 

Instead, Boone opted for the chip on his team’s shoulder. 

In an age of analytics, there’s still something to be said for some good old-fashioned fire. Just look to the top of the AL East standings. 

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E-mail Chris Mason at cmason@northofboston.com.

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