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Aaron Judge Returns to the Yankees, but the Clock Is Still Ticking

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It got late early for the Yankees this season, as Yogi Berra would have said. The team returned to the Bronx on Friday with 16 games remaining but the pennant race virtually over. The Boston Red Sox should bring Champagne with them to Yankee Stadium next week to celebrate another division title.

The Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 10½ games in the American League East before the first pitch against Toronto on Friday, matching their deficit the last time they faced the Blue Jays, in mid-August. The Yankees remain on track to host the Oakland Athletics in the wild-card game on Oct. 3, but that race is growing tighter.

To the rescue on Friday came Aaron Judge — sort of. The Yankees activated Judge from the disabled list before batting practice, but said he still could not swing a bat in a game. Judge, who broke his wrist when he was hit by a pitch on July 26, is available for base running and defense. It felt a little like getting the keys to a Ferrari, but only to use the radio.

“I just told him tonight I’m excited that he’s going to have a jersey and spikes on on the bench,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “Hopefully he can impact us a little bit more.”

Judge took batting practice on Friday, and then hustled past reporters; he had more work to do, he said. The plan for Judge, as Boone described it, is to graduate from regular batting practice to a high-velocity machine to live pitching. Then, the Yankees hope, Judge can play a few games before the big one against the A’s.

“If anyone’s watched him take B.P., it’s pretty electric right now,” Boone said. “It’s coming off like Aaron Judge.”

The Yankees have learned, in his absence, that there is only one Judge. Their other towering slugger, Giancarlo Stanton, was buried in a 4-for-42 slump before Friday’s game. He had 20 strikeouts in that stretch, giving him a share of the major league lead with 196.

Judge set a team record last season with 208 strikeouts, but the Yankees could live with it because he was so productive and patient: 52 home runs, .422 on-base percentage. Stanton makes a big impact, but it has not been Judgian: 33 home runs, .339 on-base percentage.

Stanton’s presence has helped the Yankees survive the absence of Judge and the earlier absence, and sluggish return, of Gary Sanchez. They were 90-56 over all — only the Red Sox and the Houston Astros have been better — but had a worse second-half record than the Mets. Missing Judge has made them closer to ordinary.

“It’s huge,” Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons said. “Any time one of your top guys goes down, for any team, it’s a pretty big hole. Some teams have more ways to cover it than others, but still, he was kind of that guy here. Even if a guy’s struggling, you’re aware of where he is in the lineup. A guy like that can beat you even if he mis-hits a ball. He can change the game.”

Gibbons’s team staggered into the Bronx after losing three games in Boston. The Red Sox punished the Blue Jays this season, winning 15 of their 19 matchups. Gibbons understands the challenge the Red Sox will pose in October, when their first opponent will be the winner of the wild-card game.

“They used to be a team that just slugged it out; 1 through 9, they hit home runs, and they weren’t a fast team, not necessarily an athletic team, but they would pound you to death,” Gibbons said. “Now it’s different. Now they’re a great defensive team, they can steal some bases and they can manufacture runs much easier, so in close ballgames, that swings their way a lot of times.

“And they’ve got some pure hitters on the team,” he added. “They hit home runs, but they’re good hitters, too. J. D. Martinez really made a difference for them, and he’s the perfect example. He’s got his 40 home runs, but he’ll shoot a ball the other way for a single if a guy’s on second base just to pick up a run.

“Nowadays, with so many guys in the league, the only way they drive in runs is to hit home runs. They’ve got those guys that’ll take what they’re given and they’re happy with a single to drive in that guy.”

The Yankees through Thursday had the fewest hits, the lowest batting average and the most strikeouts of any of the five teams apparently headed to the A.L. playoffs. They ranked first in homers, naturally, and home runs are the easiest, most efficient way to score.

But the qualities that make Boston, the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Indians especially dangerous against top playoff pitchers do not apply to the Yankees. Their likely matchup with the A’s will be fascinating because Oakland is the same type of team, built around home run hitters and power relievers.

The Yankees’ best reliever, Aroldis Chapman, has not pitched since Aug. 21 because of left knee tendinitis. He threw in the bullpen on Wednesday and will repeat the exercise on Saturday. If Chapman handles a simulated game, probably on Monday, the Yankees could then activate him.

Chapman had helped the bullpen compile 657 strikeouts in 519⅔ innings before Friday. Not counting this season’s Tampa Bay Rays — who have upended traditional starter-reliever roles — only one bullpen has ever exceeded that strikeout total: the 2017 Astros, who beat the Yankees in the A.L. Championship Series on their way to a championship.

To meet the Astros again, the Yankees would have to win their wild-card game and then outlast the Red Sox. It can be done, because anything can happen in October. But the Yankees can sense the doubts.

“They’re eager to prove to the baseball world that we’re an elite club,” Boone said. “That’s what we’re gunning for here as we start this last homestand.”

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