On Baseball: Aaron Judge Returns to the Yankees, but the Clock Is Still Ticking
It got late early for the Yankees this season, as Yogi Berra would have said. With more than two weeks left in the regular season, the pennant race is virtually over. The Boston Red Sox should bring Champagne with them to Yankee Stadium next week to celebrate another division title.
The Yankees trail the Red Sox by nine and a half games in the American League East after flattening the carcass of the Toronto Blue Jays, 11-0, Friday in the Bronx. The Yankees remain on track to host the Oakland Athletics in the A.L. wild-card game on Oct. 3, but that race is growing tighter.
To the rescue on Friday came Aaron Judge — sort of. The Yankees activated Judge from the disabled list before batting practice, but said he still could not swing in a game. Judge, who broke his wrist when he was hit by a pitch on July 26, is available for base running and defense. It felt like getting the keys to a Ferrari, but only to use the radio.
Judge did play two innings in right field on Friday. No fly balls came his way, but the fans roared at the sight of his hulking frame and his high socks in an actual game situation.
“I was kind of hoping they would hit around, maybe sneak in an at-bat,” Judge said. “But I was excited to be back out on the field and be back with the team.”
Judge said his wrist would not be fully healed until the off-season. But he took batting practice Friday, with plans to soon work off a high-velocity machine and then to face live pitching. After that, Judge said, he would probably be ready to hit in games. His practice swings are already tantalizing.
“I finally got to watch him and Stanton take batting practice, and I saw some pretty impressive stuff,” said Andrew McCutchen, who went 3 for 3 with two walks in his 12th game as a Yankee. “I know, to people who’ve been here all year, it’s probably normal. It’s not normal. It was awesome just to even see that.”
Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees’ other towering slugger, went 1 for 4, and he has five hits in his last 46 at-bats. He also has 20 strikeouts in that stretch, giving him a share of the major league lead with 196.
Judge set a team record last season with 208 strikeouts, but the Yankees could live with it because he was so productive and patient: 52 home runs, .422 on-base percentage. Stanton makes a big impact, but it has not been Judgian: 33 home runs, .340 on-base percentage.
Stanton’s presence has helped the Yankees survive the absence of Judge and the earlier absence, and sluggish return, of Gary Sanchez. They are 91-56 over all now — only the Red Sox and the Houston Astros have been better — but they have a worse second-half record than the Mets. Missing Judge has made them closer to ordinary.
“It’s huge,” Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons said. “Any time one of your top guys goes down, for any team, it’s a pretty big hole. Some teams have more ways to cover it than others, but still, he was kind of that guy here. Even if a guy’s struggling, you’re aware of where he is in the lineup. A guy like that can beat you even if he mis-hits a ball. He can change the game.”
Gibbons’s team staggered into the Bronx after losing three games in Boston. The Red Sox punished the Blue Jays this season, winning 15 of their 19 matchups. Gibbons understands the challenge the Red Sox will pose in October, when their first opponent will be the winner of the wild-card game.
“They used to be a team that just slugged it out; 1 through 9, they hit home runs, and they weren’t a fast team, not necessarily an athletic team, but they would pound you to death,” Gibbons said. “Now it’s different. Now they’re a great defensive team, they can steal some bases and they can manufacture runs much easier, so in close ballgames, that swings their way a lot of times.”
“And they’ve got some pure hitters on the team,” he added. “They hit home runs, but they’re good hitters, too. J. D. Martinez really made a difference for them, and he’s the perfect example. He’s got his 40 home runs, but he’ll shoot a ball the other way for a single if a guy’s on second base just to pick up a run.
“Nowadays, with so many guys in the league, the only way they drive in runs is to hit home runs. They’ve got those guys that’ll take what they’re given and they’re happy with a single to drive in that guy.”
The Yankees did just that against Toronto starter Marco Estrada on Friday, scoring eight runs off him without a homer. Yet they had entered the game with the fewest hits, the lowest batting average and the most strikeouts of any of the five teams holding A.L. playoff spots.
Naturally, they ranked first in homers — the easiest, most efficient way to score. But the qualities that make Boston, the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Indians especially dangerous against top playoff pitchers do not apply to the Yankees. Their likely matchup with the A’s will be fascinating because Oakland is the same type of team, built around home run hitters and power relievers.
The Yankees’ best reliever, Aroldis Chapman, has not pitched since Aug. 21 because of left knee tendinitis. He threw in the bullpen on Wednesday and will repeat the exercise on Saturday. If Chapman handles a simulated game, probably on Monday, the Yankees could then activate him.
Chapman had helped the bullpen compile 657 strikeouts in 519⅔ innings before Friday. Not counting this season’s Tampa Bay Rays — who have upended traditional starter-reliever roles — only one bullpen has ever exceeded that strikeout total: the 2017 Astros, who beat the Yankees in the A.L. Championship Series on their way to a championship.
To meet the Astros again, the Yankees would have to win their wild-card game and then outlast the Red Sox. It can be done, because anything can happen in October. But the Yankees can sense the doubts.
“They’re eager to prove to the baseball world that we’re an elite club,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “That’s what we’re gunning for here as we start this last homestand.”