The Yankees trailed the AL East-leading Rays by 6½ games going into Friday night’s opener of a three-game series against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
To a large extent, the Yankees can thank the Orioles for their divisional deficit.
Baltimore, which went into the night at 41-91, had gone 5-8 against the Yankees this season.
Against Tampa Bay? The Orioles concluded their season series with the Rays with a 1-18 record.
Entering Friday, the Orioles had lost 24 of 27 games, including 19 straight at one point. The Yankees had six games left with Baltimore — three this weekend and three next week at Camden Yards — but manager Aaron Boone doesn’t believe the Yankees need to win all six to have a chance to overtake the Rays.
"We can’t win Sunday’s game today or Saturday’s game today," Boone said. "So the way I look at it is we’ve got to get ready for [Friday’s starter] John Means and the Orioles tonight . . . John Means is a really good pitcher. They have guys within their lineup that are capable of doing damage if we don’t execute. Our focus is on the day, is on getting ready for this opponent, and hopefully if we go play well, we’re shaking hands at the end of it and then we move on. But I try not to get too far past it."
Gleyber Torres returned to the lineup Friday after a 22-game absence because of a thumb injury, just in time to hit against his favorite opponent. He was batting .354 with 16 home runs and a 1.172 OPS in 47 games against Baltimore.
Still, Torres probably will not start Saturday’s day game as Boone works him back into full-time play.
"I’ll probably ease him in a little bit, give him a day here and there as we build him up," Boone said. "But I know he’s been feeling [better] and champing at the bit for the better part of a week to get back in. Obviously, he was able to get a few rehab games in, which is good. He’s excited, ready to go."
Torres went 2-for-8 in three rehab games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Double-A Somerset.
Torres was hot (10-for-24 in seven games) before injuring the thumb on a headfirst slide on Aug. 8. For the season, however, he was batting .253 with six home runs and a .679 OPS — all below his career norms.
"I thought he was playing really well before he got hurt," Boone said. "I think Gleyber’s shown that the more that’s on the line, usually he’s been a little bit better of a player. We’re at, obviously, a critical time in the season, entering the final month of games here of the regular season, and I know he’s really here to get back and contribute and I know he’s excited about what’s been going on with our team of late. Like I said, I felt like he was playing some of his best baseball in those couple weeks leading up to him going on the IL."
Torres’ return means a bench role for Andrew Velazquez, the Bronx native who provided a spark at the plate and on the bases and played stellar defense in Torres’ absence.
Boone said Velazquez’s role will be "spot starts here and there. He, like Tyler [Wade], has the ability to play a lot of different positions, go to the outfield. Obviously, he brings speed to the table, so there’s situations that you can get him in late in ballgames. But [he will] play an important role for us off the bench, getting some spot starts here and there, and hopefully continuing to impact us."