Gerrit Cole of the Yankees celebrates after defeating the Dodgers at Yankee Stadium...

Gerrit Cole of the Yankees celebrates after defeating the Dodgers at Yankee Stadium on June 9. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The first time the Yankees saw the Orioles, the overwhelming favorite in the AL East entering the season, it did not go well.

“We got punched in the face,” Gleyber Torres said on May 2 after the Yankees dropped their third of four games in Baltimore.

But even after losing ugly games to the Red Sox on Saturday and Sunday in Boston, the Yankees will begin a monster midweek series against the Orioles on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium in a much better position to counterpunch.

Gerrit Cole, out since the start of the season with right elbow inflammation, will be back for the middle game of the series. Aaron Boone said on the “Talkin’ Yanks” podcast on Monday that Cole will start on Wednesday night.

The reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, who struck out 10 in 4 1⁄3 innings on Friday night with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, spoke in the visitor’s clubhouse at Fenway Park on Saturday and sounded like a pitcher ready for big-league hitters.

But the biggest difference in the teams coming into this three-game series — the AL East-leading Yankees (50-24) have a 1 1⁄2-game lead over the Orioles (47-24) — is the performance of Aaron Judge.

When the Yankees departed Baltimore, where Judge went 1-for-13, he was near rock bottom in an opening-month slump. After the series finale on May 2, Judge had a .197/.331/.393 slash line with six homers, six doubles, 24 walks, 18 RBIs and a .725 OPS. At that point, the Yankees were 20-13.

In his 40 games since then, Judge has slashed .387/.503/.937 with 20 homers, 16 doubles, 33 walks, 46 RBIs and a 1.439 OPS. He hit his MLB-leading 26th home run on Sunday night, and the Yankees have gone 30-11 since the Baltimore series.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Judge said. “Another great ballclub, excited to see them in the Bronx. It’s going to be a fun series. Fans are going to be excited, so we’re looking forward to it after the off day.”

It is too early in the season to play the positional “who has the edge?” game, but one conclusion can be drawn as of June 17: In the wasteland of mediocrity that is the American League, the Yankees and Orioles have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.

“I think both teams have clearly established themselves as really formidable,” Boone said. “But at the same time, it is a marathon. That cliche is very true. We’ve got a long way to go in all of this, and all we can say right now is I think both teams are really good, really dangerous and with a lot of potential.”

The Orioles, who ran away with the AL East last season at 101-61 and finished 19 games ahead of the fourth-place Yankees, have done well despite several body blows to their rotation. They lost Tyler Wells and John Means for the season early on, Dean Kremer has been out for a month and Kyle Bradish went on the injured list over the weekend with a UCL sprain. One of their top bullpen arms, Danny Coulombe, has left elbow inflammation.

But thanks to a balanced offense led by 21-year-old MVP candidate Gunnar Henderson (22 homers and a .958 OPS) and catching stud Adley Rutschman (14 homers and an .806 OPS), plus organizational pitching depth that has filled in more than adequately, Baltimore very much looks like a team that will fight the Yankees deep into September for the AL East crown.

“It’ll be an exciting series,” closer Clay Holmes said. “Obviously, they got us the first series. We kind of know that it’s going to be a battle for the division and these games matter. I think everybody’s excited for the opportunity. We know it’s going to be some of the best baseball, and those are the games you want to play in.”

Said Boone: “It’s a really good team. They’re very complete. They’ve had some injuries happen to their rotation, but their depth has served them well.

“They continue to get good starting pitching, they’ve been able to close out games and they have a versatile and dynamic offense. They can beat you with power, they can beat you with speed, they can match up against you. They’ve got a few guys they platoon with that are impactful against the other hand. They’re a complete team, no doubt.”

Gerrit Cole's career numbers against the Orioles:

Starts 12

W-L 5-3

ERA 2.55

WHIP .0940

SO/9 10.8

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