Yankees were just warming up for real test, which starts now

Shohei Ohtani versus Masahiro Tanaka failed to materialize in a significant way.

The Angels kept Ohtani from starting as a pitcher against his countryman for what was termed “workload management,” which sounds more like the name of a bad Adam Sandler movie than a reason to deprive fans of a desirable showdown.

Ohtani did DH all three games against the Yankees and in a season-high six straight games overall — I wonder if Cal Ripken Jr. is feeling the heat? Thus, on Sunday, he faced Tanaka for the first time since 2013. Nothing much changed. Ohtani was 19 years old the last time these two met and went 0-for-11 in Tanaka’s final season in Japan.

On Sunday, Tanaka whiffed Ohtani twice and also issued a walk, anticipation ultimately overwhelming reality during what would be a 3-1 Yankee triumph.

I actually understand Angel caution with as valuable a commodity as Ohtani as he tries to do something as unique as be a full-time hitter and pitcher in the same season. Besides, even if it lived up to its billing, Ohtani versus Tanaka would not have been as meaningful as what follows: Astros versus Yankees.

Fittingly, the opener will be Monday, Memorial Day, traditionally the first barometer reading of the season. This series will reveal more about the Yankees, where they stand and where they might be going, than anything that might have happened between Ohtani and Tanaka.

“I feel like they are the team to beat,” Dellin Betances said. “They are the reigning champs.”

On the way to their first title last year, the Astros beat the Yankees in a seven-game ALCS, which in many ways raised the bar on this Yankees season. The Yankees went further quicker than expected in 2017, sidestepping rebuilding for immediate contention. They added Giancarlo Stanton and moved into the historical cloak in which they are most comfortable — championship or bust.

That is why the Yankees’ most meaningful series to date in 2018 was going into Houston and taking three of four despite Astro starters generally performing brilliantly. The Yanks seemed to leave that series with a greater confidence internally and a better perception from the rest of the sport.

“After we took three of four there, I am sure they are going to come here with a chip on their shoulders,” Betances said.

Those games in Houston came early in what is now eight victories in the last nine series for the Yanks, including taking two of three from the Angels. That has enabled the Yankees to build the majors’ second-best record. But that it is still second to the first-place Red Sox shows how much the Yankees must do this season.

“I feel like we need to get better if we are going to be an elite team,” Aaron Boone said.

Again, remember the standard — championship or bust. That is what the Yankees are being judged against. So 33-16 as Memorial Day arrives is both excellent and incomplete.

They are rolling (2 ¹/₂ games better than the Astros) yet also beset by struggling players. Sonny Gray was again bad Saturday as the catalyst to the Yankees’ lone weekend loss to the Angels. On Sunday, the Yankees won despite going hitless in 12 at-bats with runners on base. At the center of that were Stanton, whose Bronx fail continues as he struck out in all four at-bats (each with at least a man on), and Didi Gregorius, who was 0-for-3 and has fallen precipitously over the last month.

But Betances serves as a symbol for being patient when you believe in the talent. Betances was essentially hidden in the playoffs last year and carried over wildness and a sense of being a lost cause this season. In recent weeks, though, he has been more streamlined toward the catcher and said, “I feel my stuff is playing really well.”

Boone said after Betances’ scoreless eighth inning Sunday that the big righty is back in that role under usual circumstances.

Not long ago, Boone’s positive words about Betances felt like new-age spin rather than a realistic assessment of the situation. So, that provides his upbeat assessments of Gray, Stanton, Gregorius, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle greater heft.

The Yanks have elevated to the majors’ second-best record without consistency from that group, and now they have Kahnle and Greg Bird back from extended DL stints. This is as whole as they have been in 2018. And it is a good time for that, with the Astros arriving and Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton — who have owned the Yankees recently — and Dallas Keuchel — who has owned them historically — lined up for the next three games.

“It’s a little bit of a barometer,” Boone said of the ALCS sequel, Round 2.

Certainly three games versus the Astros will be more revelatory about the state of the Yankees as Memorial Day comes and goes than Ohtani versus Tanaka.

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