So much about baseball has changed since March 12, when the first spring training was shut down due to the coronavirus.
Empty ballparks. Seven-inning doubleheaders. Designated hitters in the AL and NL. Alternate sites replaced minor league games. Teams forced to quarantine after players tested positive for COVID-19. Bubbles in front of postseason bubbles. The World Series will be played at a neutral site in Texas.
Yet through all the changes caused by the pandemic, one issue remains intact: Aaron Judge’s feelings about who the best team in baseball is as the postseason approaches.
“I think they are the same as when the season started,’’ Judge said of the Yankees’ expectations, before they swept three games from the Blue Jays with a 10-7 victory on Thursday night at the Stadium. “I feel we have the best team out there. We had a lot of key guys miss some time. We are getting back to full strength at the right time, right at the stretch. This is the best time to be hot.’’
October will determine who is the best team among the 16 clubs that will qualify for the water-downed postseason. However, based on how the Yankees rebounded from a 5-15 stretch to carry a seven-game winning streak into Thursday night’s action, it’s hard to argue the Yankees aren’t an elite team. They may not be able to catch the Rays in the AL East race — they were three games back Thursday, and the Rays held the tiebreaker because they won the season series, 8-2.
However, that doesn’t mean a lineup that recently added Giancarlo Stanton, Gio Urshela and Judge, to DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit, and solid pitching from the rotation and bullpen should be taken lightly.
Judge returned from the injured list (right calf) Wednesday night and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and started in right field. Judge wasn’t in Thursday’s lineup. Stanton surfaced from the IL on Wednesday and went 0-for-4 with a walk and struck out twice as the DH. He didn’t play Wednesday but returned Thursday.
Starting Thursday night, the 28-21 Yankees had 10 games remaining. They held a 1 ½-game lead over the Blue Jays in the race for second place in the AL East. With the Twins losing to the White Sox on Thursday afternoon, the Yankees started 1 ½ games in back of them for the best record among the three second-place finishers. The winner of that race gets the fourth seed and three first-round games at home. That is key because the Yankees were 20-7 in the Bronx going into Thursday night’s action, compared to 8-14 on the road.
“The most important games are right now. The season is not over,’’ said Judge, whose team has a three-game series against the dreadful Red Sox at Fenway Park this weekend, four with the Blue Jays in Buffalo and three games against the Marlins next weekend, which will end the regular season. “We [have] got to do what we need to do against Toronto and Boston and finish strong against Miami.”
Judge admitted he felt tightness when he came back from right calf strain on Aug. 25 and returned to the IL after one game.
“I felt a little bit of tightness when I came back the first time,” Judge said. “There was a little tightness in the calf. Before it felt a little tight but no pain so if felt like it was something I could play with.”
And this time?
“Not tightness, no pain. When there was no tightness, I felt I was ready to go,’’ said Judge, who tested the calf during simulated games at the alternate site in Scranton this week. “[Wednesday night] I was a little more amped up and ready to go and everything felt great. I had to fight with [Aaron Boone] to get me in the lineup.’’
According to Boone, Judge will likely play Friday and Saturday and possibly sit Sunday. If everything goes well, Judge and Stanton could play three or four days next week.