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NEW YORK YANKEE

DAILY SHORT: Clarke Schmidt has decided to leave due to financial reasons team details

Banking 20 wins by the first week of May can be considered a good thing, especially considering how the Yankees slogged their way to a forgettable 82-win finish last season.

The 20 wins in 33 games places them at a 98-win pace, one fewer than two seasons ago and anyone would sign up for a win total that high.

The first month brought the Yankees a pulsating four-game sweep in Houston, where the Astros may not be as good as past seasons when they seemingly stood in the way at every turn. Now it appears that role is being handed off to the Orioles, who took three of four, held the Yankees to six runs and prompted players such as Gleyber Torres to state “we got punched in the face.”

Even with the quiet bat society reappearing in Baltimore, the first month and change featured the Yankees being at the top of several hitting categories even with Aaron Judge off to an extremely slow start that has him hitting .197 and his average at or above .200 following nine of the first 33 games so far. It also features Giancarlo Stanton showing signs of life before quieting, Anthony Rizzo peaking last week and quieting again along with Anthony Volpe scorching through his first few weeks at the bottom of the order before faltering at a leadoff hitter.

The most consistent aspects of the respectable start are Juan Soto being as good as advertised and Clay Holmes being mostly dominant. Coincidentally both are free agents and will present the Yankees with some big decisions further down the road.

Soto is a .336 hitter so far and should he stay hot the all season he could surpass his previous highest batting average of .351 set in 47 games during the pandemic 2020 season where he actually missed the opening series in Washington because of COVID-19. Soto’s average puts him pace to finish with his highest full season average after hitting .275 last season and .242 in 2022 when he turned down a $440 million contract from the Nationals and was traded to the Padres.

Soto’s performance is hardly surprising considering how in awe of his teammates were of him during the opening weeks of spring training. And perhaps his biggest highlight to date are hitting a 409-foot homer in a five-run inning against Tampa Bay on April 19 and making a leaping catch in a game that felt so long ago after the grueling Knicks-Sixers series felt like a month as opposed to two weeks.

“Not very surprised,” Yankees starter Clarke Schmidt said with an almost awestruck tone of Soto that night. “It’s like every moment, it’s big games, or big ABs. He’s just a special player.”

A slump for Soto so far consists of him going hitless in consecutive games, which occurred April 21-22 and saw his average “drop” from .354 to .322. It is the kind of impact the Yankees anticipated upon making the six-player trade with San Diego in December.

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If there is a pitching equal to Soto’s early dominance then it might apply to Clay Holmes, whose trademark sinker is showing significant effectiveness so far. It is helping him to a 69 percent groundball rate so far, up from the 66.7 percent rate last season when Holmes posted a 2.86 ERA in 66 appearances.

Also helping Holmes is continued dominance of a slider as a secondary pitch. Holmes permitted a .222 mark with the pitch two seasons ago, and it was down to .128 last season but so far, hitters are 0-for-12 on the pitch.

The ground ball rate and effective slider to compliment the sinker are helping Holmes start with a run of 15 scoreless appearances and 10 saves.

The trust and confidence in his stuff is why the Yankees deployed Holmes for the final five outs of their only win in Baltimore on Wednesday.

“That’s the game right there,” manager Aaron Boone told reporters. “And if the eighth inning got long and we had to go with someone else in the ninth, so be it. We’re at the top of their order, game’s on the line with a couple guys out there. You know with Clay, it’s one pitch away if he puts you on the ground properly.

So far Soto is hitting the ball properly and Holmes is putting the ball on the ground properly. Those performances are highlighting a 20-13 start which marks the first time the Yankees reached 20 wins by May 1 since 2003 and it potentially sets them up well for the final five months of the marathon.

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