Good Morning
Good Morning
SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees get an immediate test from AL East’s best

Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees

Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees celebrates with Aaron Judge #99 after connecting on a 3-run home run in the third inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Credit: Getty Images / Mike Stobe

BOSTON - The All-Star break was fun, right? We got to watch Aaron Judge strafe Marlins Park en route to the Home Run Derby crown, Nelson Cruz pose for a selfie with umpire Joe West and Robinson Cano remind everyone that, yes, he’s continuing his Cooperstown track out there with the sockeye salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

The four-day palate cleanser was blissfully clean of Tyler Clippard meltdowns, and we were all spared any further hands-over-face, peek-through-the-fingers moments that accompany another Yankee limping off the field, a scene that played out far too frequently in the first half.

On the downside, there’s already a starting pitcher off the market after the Cubs acquired Jose Quintana from the White Sox in Thursday’s blockbuster swap for four prospects.

But now it’s back to on-field business again, time to interrupt those “Is Judge the Face of Baseball?” debates that kept us occupied during the last 48 hours and return the focus to the AL East race, which resumes Friday night with the Yankees’ visit to Fenway Park. The challenge is to predict how this competition will play out from here.

After what transpired during the month leading to the break — the complete reversal of fortune between the Yankees and Red Sox — it’s a trend that potentially could doom the sooner-than-expected Bronx revival. In the span of 27 days, the Yankees went from owning a four-game lead in the division to trailing the Red Sox by 3 1⁄2 games, a grim turnaround made more shocking by its alarming speed.

Does this mean the Red Sox, a team that many picked to win the division, finally have found their stride and will continue to sprint ahead, maybe even accelerate the pace as the Yankees struggle to stabilize their pitching staff? Or can Judge, Gary Sanchez and Clint Frazier — who has provided an immediate Red Bull-type jolt — help deliver enough body blows to keep the defending AL East champs from pulling away?

This weekend alone, believe it or not, could go a long way toward tipping the balance, mostly because of the April 25 rainout that turned this into a four-game series, capped by Sunday’s day-night doubleheader, which of course will be headlined by the ESPN 8 p.m. broadcast. Diving right in at Fenway will be the perfect litmus test for the Yankees, who desperately needed the All-Star recess to catch their collective breath.

“It’s where you want to start off,” Judge said, “with the guys in first place.”

The Red Sox leapfrogged the Yankees during the past month for good reason, outclassing their rivals in nearly every statistical category except for home runs. Boston tightened the gap some there, too, hitting only five fewer (34) in the span as Judge crushed 12 of his team’s 39.

Otherwise, this wasn’t close. As you would expect, the Sox rotation (11-9, 3.81 ERA) and bullpen (6-for-10 save chances, 3.00 ERA) were miles ahead of the Yankees, whose starters were 6-9 with a 4.88 ERA and relief corps sagged to 3-for-12 in saves with a 5.02 ERA, which ranked 24th overall, by the way.

While Mookie Betts now is looking more like the guy who finished MVP runner-up to Mike Trout, the biggest rebound during Boston’s rapid ascent has been by Jackie Bradley Jr., who’s batting .345 with a .969 OPS during the past month. The preseason favorite for Rookie of the Year, Andrew Benintendi, also heated up in that span (.308 batting average, .920 OPS) to get the Red Sox on top, even though the trophy already is in Judge’s back pocket.

The Yankees still have plenty to prove, with Masahiro Tanaka again one of the question marks after his backslide before the break. Tanaka was riding a three-start roll (2-0, 1.29 ERA) without allowing a home run before the Brewers knocked him out of his July 9 outing after 4 1⁄3 innings. CC Sabathia also looked rusty in his first start back after missing three weeks with a hamstring strain, and the Yankees have yet to release their rotation plans for the weekend series at Fenway.

Whatever the order, there’s no disguising the urgency. Not with first place on the line.

New York Sports