The Yankees are doing what? Aggressive baserunning? Situational hitting?

In just four games to open the season, the 2024 Bronx Bombers have a completely different look and feel from the flat and uninspired group that missed the playoffs last year. They created traffic on the basepaths and drove runners in. They finally have a defensive left fielder roaming a corner. There is true righty-lefty balance in the lineup. Anyone who paid slight attention to the Yankees these past couple of seasons, let alone followed their every move, can see the contrast. 

We’ll get to the immense impact of Juan Soto in a bit, but even taking out the myriad ways the superstar alone helped the Yankees win games, the overall player mentality on the roster has clearly changed. It’s hard to find another stretch of games where Judge, sandwiched between two strong outfield arms and finally getting lineup protection, beamed that much. The club played loose, but it didn’t let itself be bullied by its recent postseason nemesis. Most encouragingly, the Yankees came back from behind all weekend.

Sure, it’s early. But with a special, once-in-a-generation hitter like Soto in the lineup, it seems like the Yankees have found their new identity. If this confidence can carry them through the long season, New York’s series-opening sweep over the Astros was just the appetizer. The first 4-0 start to the season since 2003, and taking four straight from the Astros in the Minute Maid juicebox in the process, was a dream scenario. 

A message was sent this weekend: The Yankees are back. Here are my top three observations from their sweep in Houston.

1. Soto does it again and again (and again)

The Yankees’ first four-game sweep over Houston wouldn’t have been possible without its new superstar. Soto single-handedly changed the complexion of New York’s offense, and it went beyond his patented shuffle at the plate. He jawed with the umpire after every pitch he disagreed with. He stared down the opposing pitcher and nodded his head even after he was down 0-1. 

All weekend, Soto dared pitchers to beat him in the box. He supplied the type of cocky intensity that had been missing from a Yankees team devoid of gritty personalities. The plucky temperaments of two new additions in Alex Verdugo and Marcus Stroman, too, helped increase the ferociousness of the club. 

Still, no matter how you slice it, this was Soto’s series. He went 9-for-17 (.529) with a home run, four RBI and two runs scored. The 25-year-old was a difference-maker in all four Yankees wins, similar to when he blasted three home runs and posted an 1.178 OPS in the Nationals’ 2019 World Series triumph versus the Astros. 

On Opening Day, he broke New York’s 2023 curse with runners in scoring position. Not known for his glove, Soto even hurled a perfect strike from right field and cut down the runner at home. On Sunday, he supplied the game-winning hit — against Josh Hader — in the ninth inning of a 4-3 victory. No moment is too big for the greatest athletes, and Soto showed Yankees fans first hand how he has cemented himself into that echelon since bursting onto the scene in his 2018 rookie season. 

All fans want now are three words: pay the man.

2. Starters survive, and the bullpen shuts the door 

The rotation became the Yankees’ biggest question mark of the season after Gerrit Cole was placed on the 60-day injured list this spring because of elbow inflammation. The reigning AL Cy Young winner is targeting a June 1 return date, and the front office didn’t respond to the ace’s injury with an outside addition, leaving a ton of pressure on New York’s starting pitching to dig deep right at the outset of the season. The Yankees are challenging the back of the rotation — guys like Nestor Cortes and Clarke Schmidt — to step up for the staff without Cole. 

So, how did they do? Carlos Rodón, now the de facto ace, kept the club on the edge of its seat through his 4.1 innings of one-run ball. He got into trouble early and often but was able to escape the sticky situations of his own doing, too. While Rodón struggled with command at times, he had life on his fastball and was confident, stalking the mound and resetting his mindset to keep himself in the outing. Stroman, Cortes and Schmidt followed a similar playbook. 

None of their first starts were stress-free, nor were they elite, but they were effective. They kept the games close enough for Soto & Co. to rally, which also wouldn’t have been possible without the bullpen’s strong performance.

The Yankees’ relief corps is unscored on through 15.1 innings to start the year. The bullpen is once again looking like one of the club’s best strengths. Last year, the Yankees finished with the best bullpen ERA (3.34) in MLB.

MLB award predictions: Will Juan Soto win his first MVP?

3. Judge has help 

It’s no secret that Judge often doesn’t look like himself against the Astros. The slugger has long struggled in his career against them — they do an excellent job of scouting him. That trend continued into a new year; Judge went 2-for-16 (.125) with six strikeouts in the opening series … and the Yankees still managed to outscore Houston by 10. Maybe, just maybe, Judge doesn’t have to carry the offense anymore. 

There was Soto doing Soto things, of course. But the Yankees’ lineup looked the deepest it has in recent years thanks to contributions from Oswaldo Cabrera and Anthony Volpe. Cabrera hit his way into the lineup every night at Minute Maid, becoming the super unlikely clutch hitter that the Yankees never knew he could be. Cabrera said he’s been watching Soto take batting practice, and he’s learned a thing or two from the four-time Silver Slugger. 

Volpe looked like a mature adult in his sophomore season, working walks and being patient for the pitch he wanted. Even Giancarlo Stanton looked improved, crushing a home run in the second game of the season and, on Sunday, even tagging up from second base on a deep fly ball after leading off an inning with a double. 

It’s a fantastic sign for the Yankees that they teed off against the Astros bullpen, which has the filthiest back-end trio in baseball. Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly and Hader combined to surrender six earned runs, including three home runs, in the opening series. New York got contributions from all over the roster this weekend, including a slick play at the hot corner from new addition Jon Berti in the ninth inning on Sunday that stopped the Astros from tying the game, or possibly walking it off. Even their B squad is not to be underestimated at this early juncture of the season. 

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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