It’s the terrifying subplot to every one of these Yankees’ games during this final week. Can the oft-injured duo of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton make it to the playoffs intact?
Those fears have to factor into the cost-benefit analysis each time manager Aaron Boone fills out his lineup card down the stretch. For Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jays -- another must-win to stay on pace with the Twins for the No. 4 seed -- Boone protected Judge the best he could by using him in the DH spot. The manager left Stanton on the bench, despite only six games to go, and a built-in day off Monday.
It’s the balance between getting Judge ready for the postseason while trying to insure that he’ll be healthy for Tuesday’s wild-card opener. And you can bet Boone sweats every step that Judge takes, even on these chilly Buffalo nights at Sahlen Field.
On Tuesday, however, Boone had to be relieved as Judge’s three-hit night (plus three runs scored) was a welcome sign of progress in the Yankees’ 12-1 rout of the Jays. Judge smoked a 111.4-mph single through the left side of the infield in the first inning, an exit velocity that was second only to the 113.1 he registered back on Aug. 11. Just as critical, Judge hustled around to score from first base on a triple by Aaron Hicks, a serious test in his comeback from a strained calf.
In the fifth inning, Judge reached for a 1-and-1 slider and slapped it into leftfield for an RBI single. Soon after, he scored on a base hit by Hicks. In the ninth, Judge ripped a line-drive single up the middle, giving him more hits Tuesday than his previous five games combined (was 2-for-17 since his return). Afterward, Gerritt Cole described Judge’s presence as "superhero-like" for the Yankees.
"To see him moving well, I think that’s the biggest thing right now," Boone said postgame (Judge was not made available). "Physically, just seeing him bounce back, and seeing him be able to do all the things he needs to do to be Aaron Judge. But I’m confident he’s going to get there, the guy we know in the box."
The Yankees also remember that Judge only lasted a total of six innings the first time he returned from the strained calf. Before getting hurt, Judge was building a case for the AL MVP, with nine home runs, 20 RBIs and a 1.101 OPS over 17 games. Two IL stints later, playing just once in 35 days, Judge was hitting .118 since he rejoined the team on Sept. 16 with a pair of singles and seven strikeouts. He’s still waiting for his first extra-base hit, but Boone anticipates seeing Judge’s awesome power again any minute.
"I think over time that’s always boiling under the surface," Boone said. "So as he gets really locked in, then you’ll start to see him elevate some balls as well."
Judge was rusty. That’s understandable. But in this chaotic season, it can be uniquely difficult for a player to get his bearings again, especially with only a rehab stint at Scranton’s alternate site to prep.
With such a tight time frame, this is a bit of a crash course for Judge, but he does have some experience. Two years ago, when Judge missed seven weeks with a fractured wrist, he squeezed in 13 ragged games during September, batting .220 (9-for-41) with only one homer and 15 Ks. Once Judge reached October, however, he quickly found his groove, going 8-for-19 with three home runs in five games.
Stanton, to date, has somewhat eased the Yankees’ concerns, but he’s also sheltered in being slotted as the regular DH. After missing five weeks with a hamstring strain, Stanton was hitting .286 (6-for-21) with three doubles and a home run over his first five games back. Unlike Judge, however, Stanton has a few more demons to slay once the playoffs arrive.
But with the current outfield depth, and the emergence of Clint Frazier as a legit game-changer, Boone can pick his spots during this last week to preserve his more fragile sluggers while staying as competitive as possible. Maybe the extended time on the shelf, from a purely wear-and-tear perspective, might actually help Judge and Stanton stay upright through October.
"Hopefully they are a little fresher by all means," Boone said. "But we'll have to see how that plays out."
And so Boone will swallow hard and cross his fingers in writing out the lineup these next six days. The Yankees have every intention of riding Judge and Stanton again in October, as long as their legs are able to support them up for the journey.