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Expect surging Jacoby Ellsbury to be in wild-card lineup this time

Jacoby Ellsbury of the New York Yankees follows

Jacoby Ellsbury of the New York Yankees follows through on his fourth-inning two-run home run against the New York Mets at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Seeing Aaron Hicks go airborne Tuesday night and reach over the bullpen fence to take away a grand slam from Wilson Ramos in the Yankees’ 6-1 victory over the Rays got us thinking about where he fits in the playoff puzzle. Afterward, Joe Girardi had a few thoughts, too.

“That was an incredible catch,” Girardi said, “and for one of the other centerfielders, it would have been tough, because they’re lefthanded.”

So after a dazzling grab like that reminds Girardi of Hicks’ superior defensive skills, could an impressive few days at the plate nudge the manager to consider sitting Jacoby Ellsbury for another wild-card game, just as he did in 2015 against the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel?

We seriously doubt it, after Hicks just spent nearly a month rehabbing a left oblique strain while Ellsbury had a sizzling September, hitting .353 (24-for-68) in those 21 games, with eight doubles, five stolen bases, 17 runs and a .963 OPS. But we’re also not convinced Girardi won’t be tempted, even after the heat he took in 2015 for starting the righty-hitting Chris Young over the $153-million Ellsbury, citing Keuchel’s dominance over lefty bats.

Don’t bet on history repeating itself. With only five games left, there’s hardly enough time to get Hicks back up to speed at the major-league level, never mind tempt Girardi to mess with an Ellsbury lineup that has scored 144 runs in September, tied with the Twins for most in the majors. Hicks drew a walk in each of this first three at-bats Tuesday and struck out in the sixth before being removed for Brett Gardner, just to ease him back for the first game.

To project Hicks to be up to speed already, however, as the same guy that had career highs in both home runs (13) and RBIs (48) through his first 82 games, is probably a reach at this late date. But Girardi, who was effusive in his praise for Hicks, wouldn’t rule it out.

“You hope so,” Girardi said.

For a numbers-obsessed manager like Girardi, the expected matchup with the Twins’ Ervin Santana also gives Ellsbury the edge — along with what he’s been able to contribute in Hicks’ long absence. Ellsbury has some familiarity against Santana, batting .294 (10-for-34) with a home run; Hicks is 0-for-6 against him, striking out three times.

Beyond that, we have to believe not even Girardi, who tends to remain cooly detached when it comes to baseball decisions, would dare pull Ellsbury after his September roll. Plainly put, Ellsbury is Ellsbury again — or at least closer to the version the Yankees envisioned when they ponied up for that contract.

Why the turnaround? Health is probably the biggest factor, as Ellsbury likely was dogged by his concussion symptoms far longer than could be easily recognized. The date that changed his season was May 24, when Ellsbury crashed into the centerfield wall at Yankee Stadium to rob Alcides Escobar, smacking his head and suffering a sprained neck in the scary collision.

Concussions, as we now know, are tricky things. It’s never as simple as taking a few weeks off to recover, say for a sore shoulder or bruised knee. And Ellsbury’s rehab repeatedly had to be slowed because he couldn’t shake the recurring headaches. When Ellsbury did return to the lineup, he didn’t appear to be himself, batting .200 (27-for-135) in his next 46 games as Girardi felt compelled to use more of Hicks and the rookie Clint Frazier.

The only knock against Hicks has been his inability to stay on the field. He’s suffered oblique strains to both sides of his rib cage, costing him a total of 67 days on the DL, and those injuries again opened the door for Ellsbury. As for Hicks, his goal now is to prove that he’s ready for the playoffs, and Girardi intends to give him the chance down the stretch.

The best indicator that Hicks was feeling pretty good was his spectacular leaping grab to rob Ramos in the first inning, when he stretched a glove-length above the fence to snatch the ball back from the Yankees’ bullpen.

“It’s definitely a big test,” Hicks said.

That was the Hicks everyone remembered. But Ellsbury isn’t likely to be forgotten this time.

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