“Like riding a bike” is how Aaron Judge described Tuesday night’s return from nearly two months on the disabled list.
Which made perfect sense, really, if that bike ride meant trying to hit 99-mph fastballs, with a partially-healed bone fracture in his wrist, while 38,695 people sat there watching, wondering if you were going to fall off the bike.
Not so easy. We’d even venture to say incredibly hard. But that’s why Judge is who he is, the Yankees’ undisputed MVP, and perhaps the biggest reason yet to believe that maybe Aaron Boone & Co. can pull out of his September swoon in time.
If Judge is anywhere in the neighborhood of his run-producing healthy self, or at least in the same zip code, then the Yankees instantly become a formidable lineup again. And there were some positive signs during Tuesday night’s 3-2 victory over the Red Sox, for both Judge as well as his teammates.
For now, we’ll focus on Judge, because he’s the guy everyone was waiting for, and his abrupt return to the lineup card was a bit of a surprise. It came soon after a handful of front-office staffers — including GM Brian Cashman — watched him take some hacks that same morning against Yankees’ minor-leaguer Adonis Rosa, a righthander from High-A Tampa.
That was only Judge’s second simulated game in as many days, without the luxury of a minor-league rehab assignment, which is standard in these cases. To think he could immediately get up to speed seemed unreasonable, and yet Judge appeared perfectly fine when he stepped into the box Tuesday night, greeted by a standing ovation.
One pitch later, Judge ripped a 99-mph fastball from Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi for a line-drive out to rightfield that registered a very robust 112-mph on Statcast. Not the type of velocity you anticipate from a slugger with a sore wrist. Regardless of Judge’s words, this was the proof we needed to see.
“I felt like I had never left,” Judge said afterward. “That’s what I’m getting paid to do — help the Yankees win games. I was good to go.”
Judge probably wasn’t able to provide the impact he wanted in Tuesday’s victory, but he did make solid contact in his first three at-bats before getting rung up, perhaps unfairly, in his eighth-inning K. His double-play grounder to short was well struck, and Judge came within a few feet of slicing a fly ball over the rightfield wall in the sixth inning before J.D. Martinez grabbed it at the warning track.
Honestly, we didn’t envision a comeback like this for Judge, not after missing that much time, and without the minor-league game reps. Also, wrist injuries are lethal for a hitter, especially one who generates as much force as Judge. But he seemed unfazed by the task, not bothered at all trying to fend of Eovaldi’s blazing heat.
“I thought he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat,” Boone said. “He was in midseason form.” Judge admits there’s still discomfort in the wrist, and it won’t go away completely until he’s had the offseason to rest up. But the Yankees are aiming for a long October between now and then, presumably with Judge a steady force again in the No. 2 spot, as he was Tuesday night. For almost two months, the biggest question surrounding the team involved Judge’s status, and if it was possible to think he could be a factor from September on.
After one game, the early evidence points to the affirmative. It remains to be seen how often Boone can use Judge, who is likely to need the occasional breather to protect the wrist, but this is another situation where his massive strength — and high pain threshold — could be enough to get him through an extended playoff run.
The Yankees clearly were anxious to evaluate him at this stage of his recovery, and Judge was just as eager to oblige. Judge told them he was ready after Monday’s simulation, and when the forecast for rain delayed Tuesday’s start by six hours, he was able to a convince them with another sim game that morning. Boone didn’t need any more arm-twisting, and Judge was tired of waiting.
“I just voiced my opinion — a lot,” Judge said. “I told them to put me in there.”
Judge insists he’s the same player he was, and after one night, we’ll take his word for it. If he’s not, he’s close enough.