NEW YORK — Aaron Judge has represented who the Yankees are this season almost every step of the way. When he was smashing home runs in April and May, the Yankees were doing well. When he went on the disabled list in early June, it wasn’t long before the Yankees collapsed to last place in the AL East. The Yankees go the way Judge goes.
“He is our rock,” Isiah Kiner-Falefa told FOX Sports on Saturday. “He’s been tough.”
So it stands to reason that on Sunday morning, as Judge took the biggest step yet in his rehab journey, the Yankees also showed encouraging signs of being on the up.
Judge stepped into the batter’s box and saw live pitches Sunday for the first time since June 3, when he tore a ligament in his right big toe while making a catch at Dodger Stadium. The Yankees captain saw 16 pitches from right-hander Jonathan Loáisiga, who is recovering from elbow surgery. Judge took 11 pitches, fouled out four and drove through one more before he completed his biggest hurdle.
The moral here shouldn’t be the fact that Judge didn’t put a single ball into play. Rather, the slugger seemed to be making sure his back right foot moved correctly in following him. Judge also seemed to focus on watching and tracking shots again as he adjusts to live action after being sidelined for seven weeks. Subsequently, manager Aaron Boone was encouraged by Judge’s live batting practice session, noting that “it’s not going to get any harder than that” with the way he pitched Loaisiga.
The Yankees will now monitor how Judge comes out of the at-bat. Judge noted Friday that his rehab and eventual return to the lineup will still involve some degree of pain. The judge indicated that he does not expect the pain and discomfort in the toe to completely disappear anytime soon. Asked if his rehab is currently focused on a pain management issue or a concern about re-injury, Judge said “it’s hard to say” and he hasn’t gotten an answer on that. It’s fair to wonder if Judge would still be rising right now if the Yankees weren’t in the middle of a wild-card race.
“He’s not going to be pain free,” Judge said Friday. “But she’s getting as manageable as possible.”
Judge wasn’t sure if he will require a stint in minor league rehab before returning to the field. The slugger is likely to return to the lineup as a designated hitter before he’s cleared to play the outfield. Boone noted that Judge still needs to pass some endurance tests as part of his rehab. But Judge, as competitive as he is, is eager to return to his spot in right field.
“I want to be right,” Judge said. “I might get knocked down, but I’d rather be on the field.”
Judge’s progress isn’t the only encouraging development surrounding the Yankees right now. In fact, there are several indicators that point to the possibility of the Yankees finally turning their luck around.
Gleyber Torres crushes a two-run HR, helping the Yankees take an early lead against the Royals
The Yankees swept the Royals this weekend, marking their first series since May. It’s also his first win in the series since late June. Right now, every game is important to the Bombers. How they fare before the August 1 trade deadline could ultimately determine if they are indeed buyers. Two weeks since the Yankees fired hitting coach Dillon Lawson and named former All-Star first baseman Sean Casey as his replacement, the offense is finally warming up with contributions from key players.
On Sunday, Anthony Rizzo smashed his first home run since May 20. The Yankees dugout went on a rampage at the first baseman, giving him the silent treatment before harassing him on the bench. Only 401 players had homered between May 20 and Rizzo’s last long drive on Sunday. Shohei Ohtani smashed 24 home runs during Rizzo’s home run drought. So yeah, it was a long time coming and then some. And while one home run isn’t enough to say Rizzo is back, the 33-year-old has been more like himself at the plate in recent days, fouling pitches and collecting hits. Has the mere sound of Judge taking batting practice rejuvenated Rizzo? (Just kidding, but not entirely.)
Then, there’s the sudden offensive outburst of DJ LeMahieu, who really might have come back from the dead. LeMahieu played the hero Saturday, hitting a home run in the seventh inning that helped the Yankees beat the Royals. The infielder has hit safely in 11 of his last 12 games, hitting .311 (14-for-45) with five runs, three doubles, one home run, one RBI and three walks in that span. He has an .856 OPS over the past two weeks. The Yankees are at a point where any sign of production from the former batting champion is promising, and these past few weeks have certainly been encouraging.
Throw in Giancarlo Stanton’s recent home run binge (six home runs in his last 11 games, including two in the previous four). Add in Gleyber Torres, who crushed a two-run homer in the first inning on Sunday, and he continues to be a bright spot in the lineup. Add in Josh Donaldson’s calf injury, which placed the spiraling third baseman on the 60-day disabled list and effectively ended his tenure with the team. Suddenly, everything comes crashing down on the Yankees.
It’s been a quick turnaround that will have to continue beyond a comfortable series against the lowly Royals to prove he’s genuine. After all, the Yankees are still just days away from losing nine of 11 and some ugly optics in between. Last Wednesday, Rizzo, still in the throes of his horrible slump, was seen laughing in the dugout next to an irritated Kiner-Falefa, just minutes after the Yankees lost 4-0 to the Angels. Fans were understandably angry at Rizzo, the club’s de facto leader while Judge is on the disabled list, for appearing bubbly and cheerful while the Yankees were in the midst of a four-game losing streak and swept by the Angels.
“It looks terrible,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Even though we’re down 4-0, there’s a chance we can come back. The biggest thing as an offense is knowing we’re one swing away. So I think we were just trying to stay loose. But at the same time, it’s not really the time for that.”
It’s out of time, of course, for the board to deal with building the club’s roster, which includes holes in left field and third base. New York has a chance to improve on those shortcomings before the Aug. 1 trade deadline with MLB Network’s Jon Morosi reporting the Yankees’ interest in Cubs outfielder Cody Bellinger. The former MVP would be a perfect fit for the Yankees, his powerful left-handed bat providing balance and momentum to a mediocre lineup and playing perfectly on Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch.
Nestor Cortes began a rehab assignment Sunday with the Double-A Somerset Patriots. The lefty has been sidelined since late May with a rotator cuff strain. Cortés threw 41 pitches and probably needs at least two more rehab starts before he’s cleared back into the rotation, which should put his return sometime in early August. Loaisiga also looked sharp Sunday in his live bullpen session, prompting praise from Boone of “he looked like Lo in the playoffs.” He too should be on track to return to the club in early August after undergoing surgery in May to remove a bone spur in his right elbow.
The Yankees hope to see the rotation they initially envisioned finally come together. Cortés will join Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodón, Luis Severino and Domingo Germán to create a New York starting lineup that would be dangerous if those arms are working to their full potential.
The Yankees are starting to turn it around at the right time. Despite the poor optics and lack of offense without Judge, New York has stayed above .500 and is two games away from the wild card. Judge is on the mend, the offense is waking up, the rotation and bullpen will soon be getting stronger.
Things are starting to look up in the Bronx.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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