With 12 games left in the regular season, the Yankees are whole again.
First it was Aaron Judge returning to the lineup from a lengthy disabled list stint on Tuesday; closer Aroldis Chapman came back into the fold before Wednesday night’s game against the Red Sox.
“We’re getting an elite closer back,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s had a great year for us. Just excited to add him to, obviously, what we think’s a really good bullpen, and it just lengthens our pen, and adds to our ability to shorten a game.”
Chapman, on the DL since Aug. 22 with left knee tendinitis, is 31-for-33 in save chances with a 2.11 ERA this season. The tendinitis is an issue that the 30-year-old has been managing much of the season, but he sounded like the time away helped.
“I feel really good,” Chapman said Tuesday. “Happy to see that I’ve gained the strength back in that knee, which I lost a little bit. So everything that has happened with the rehab work that I’ve done has helped a lot.”
Boone indicated he would ease Chapman back into the closer role, meaning continued save chances, at least in the short term, for Dellin Betances and Zach Britton.
“Initially, we probably just want to get him into a game in some way, shape, or form,” Boone said. “We’ll kind of let the role evolve. Obviously, eventually he’ll go back into our closer spot. We want to get him back in the mix, back in the flow and kind of in his role sooner rather than later. We’ll try to get him regular work, but we also want to make sure we get him to where he’s firing on all cylinders as we head into October.”
Which, of course, is what it’s all about for the Yankees, specifically Oct. 3, the date of the AL wild-card game. The Red Sox have run away with the division, bringing a magic number of two into Wednesday night’s game.
The lone drama left for the Yankees is where they’ll play the A’s — their likely opponent in the wild-card game— at home or in Oakland.
Their lead over the A’s, who closed fast in recent weeks, was at 2 ½ games going into Wednesday night as Oakland had lost four of five.
The Yankees are 9-11 in their last 20 games but they’ve steadily gotten healthy, welcoming back Judge, Chapman, Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez in the last two weeks.
“If the guys start getting hot here, we're going to be a pretty big force,” Judge said. “This is the time to get hot. We can't wait until the postseason and try to flick a switch and fire things up. We have to start right now, so I feel like that's something we're about to go on right now.”
Judge, naturally, is the most significant of the returnees. The slugger, hitting .282 with 26 homers, 61 RBIs and a .937 OPS entering Wednesday night, brings the obvious offensive capabilities, but intangible qualities as well.
“We’re writing one of the best players in the league down in our lineup,” Boone said. “Not only does he go into an impactful position in our lineup, but it also means another good player goes down in the lineup to a different spot, so it creates depth in our lineup. And it makes our bench a lot stronger. And then from an intangible element, this is a special person, a special competitor. Frankly, in a lot of ways [Tuesday] night, him being in there, you could feel it. You could feel it all night on the bench. He has that kind of presence. He’s a special player and a special guy.”