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Yankees face key stretch with nine-game West Coast road trip looming

Gary Sanchez and the Yankees swept a three-game set at Angel Stadium last April. (AP)

Injuries have been the key storyline for the Yankees so far this season, leading to a tough start to the team's 2019 campaign.

Projected by many to win the AL East this spring, the Bombers have instead seen the Rays build an early lead in the division. Although New York's slow start hasn't taken place during a soft part of their schedule, the club can at least take solace in the even more notable struggles of their rivals in Boston, which hasn't suffered such extensive injuries to its roster.

Now, with a nine-game homestand coming to a close, the Yankees face an early test that could define how the first half of their season goes: A nine-game trip to the West Coast while a dozen key players remain out.

The Yankees are set for four games in Anaheim with the Angels, three in San Francisco and a pair of games in Arizona before heading back home. Gary Sanchez may return before early in the trip, but other reinforcements aren't likely until afterward. 

Even if the Yankees were at full strength, a West Coast trip would still represent a formidable challenge; the Bombers have been undone by western stays in the past. Last season, they swept the Angels, but back in 2017, the Yankees entered a trip to Anaheim and Oakland in first place before CC Sabathia went down with an injury, and the team began a six-game losing streak that bled into their following homestand. 

This season's Red Sox began the year with 11 games out west and went 3-8 with a myriad of problems following them back to Fenway Park. No, their issues aren't solely a creation of a mythical change in time zones, but an extended time away from home can have a lasting impact and clearly unmoored Boston in some ways.

Long road trips can also provide a chance for a team to bond. The 1998 Yankees famously started 1-4 out west before coming together and finding their footing. That comes with the obvious caveat that no team can be easily compared to the winningest squad in baseball history. Still, they provide an example of how a ballclub can not only tread water but excel within difficult circumstances.

The 2019 Yankees will have plenty of challenges to overcome when they leave the Bronx. Fortunately for New York, the upcoming opponents aren't world beaters. The D-backs have surprised despite roster subtractions and sit *near* .500, but both the Angels and Giants come into next week with losing records. Mike Trout can change the course of any series with the Angels, but the Giants are in a rough spot as their contention window ends.

After spending the early season at Yankee Stadium (with brief excursions to Baltimore and Houston), the Yankees will face the other extreme with a trio of pitcher-friendly parks. Oracle Park in San Francisco is so off-the-charts favoring pitchers that the team has discussed moving the fences in. While the Yankees' offense won't be happy to leave the Bronx behind, J.A. Happ could solve some of his early home-run issues by pitching in Angel Stadium and Oracle Park.

While the Yankees go out west, the Rays and Red Sox have an easier slates. Tampa play two series with the Royals and a series with the Orioles to book-end matchups with Boston. Even though they have a 10-game road trip of their own, it won't be as far away from home. Meanwhile, Boston plays 10 straight at home with games against the Tigers, Rays and Athletics. 

Even as we enter late April, it's still early enough in the season that the five-game deficit the Yankees had entering Friday is overcome. The Yankees, however, can't afford to Tampa Bay extend that lead too far before the Rays come to the Bronx in mid-May. That means the upcoming West Coast slate could be a defining stretch for a team looking to push above .500.