Judge returns from stiff neck, HRs with Stanton off Paxton

RONALD BLUM (AP Baseball Writer)
The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- James Paxton and Aaron Judge were back on the field for an instrasquad game Wednesday, making the New York Yankees look more like themselves eight days before the latest opening day in team history.

Pitching under game conditions for the first time since back surgery five months ago, Paxton gave up a home run on his second pitch to Judge. Two batters later, Paxton allowed a long ball to Giancarlo Stanton.

''It's a great lineup. I'm glad that it's ours,'' the 31-year-old left-hander said. ''I'm glad that I'm not facing those guys all the time.''

Judge had not played in an intrasquad game since Thursday because of a stiff neck, another in a series of health concerns for the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year.

Judge estimated his neck motion had improved from 35% to 90%. He homered into the net above Monument Park.

''Good enough to play,'' Judge said. ''Sometimes you just wake up on the wrong side of bed.''

Judge was limited to 214 games during the past two regular seasons. He had a broken right wrist when hit by a Jakob Junis fastball in 2018, then an oblique strain that sidelined him for two months last year.

He broke a rib making a diving catch last September. That latter injury didn't keep him out of last year's playoffs but would have sidelined him during the early part of this season had the schedule not been wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.

''You break a bone in your ribs from diving, trying to make a play for your pitcher, you get hit in the wrist by a pitcher, it's just freak things,'' Judge said. ''I'm going to keep playing this game hard, and that's all I know.''

Paxton was 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA last year in his first full season with the Yankees, who acquired him from Seattle. He got hurt late in the season and finally had surgery on Feb. 5.

He needs just eight days of service time this season to become eligible for free agency but said he has had no thoughts about reaching that mark and then opting out of a contract cut from $12.5 million to $4.63 million due to the shortened season.

''I'm here to play. I'm here to win. I'm here to help us try and get number 28,'' he said, a reference to the World Series title the Yankees seek. ''I feel good. I feel healthy. I'm ready to roll.''

He didn't pitch in any exhibitions before spring training was interrupted in mid-March, and he'll get to appear in the Yankees' final practice game, against Philadelphia on Monday. New ace Gerrit Cole is scheduled to start the July 23 opener at Washington, and manager Aaron Boone said Paxton will start the second game at the Nationals on July 25.

Before the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus, Paxton appeared on track for a nine-figure contract next offseason. Represented by Scott Boras, who prefers his clients become free agents, Paxton would not say whether he would consider negotiating a long-term deal with the Yankees before going free.

''We'll see what happens,'' he said. ''I haven't had anyone come to me with anything like that yet.''

Paxton struck out five, walked two and hit Luke Voit, allowing two hits over 4 2/3 innings while throwing 68 pitches. His fastball was 92-94 mph.

Stanton hooked a low liner near the left-field foul pole.

''It was great to see those guys get those hits. It's too bad it was off of me,'' Paxton said. ''But I did make mistakes, and they made me pay.''

Judge also walked, fouled out and grounded out on a dribbler in front of the plate while making several catches in right field. Stanton struck out in his next three at-bats.

Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who like Paxton can become a free agent in the offseason, is scheduled for a bullpen session Thursday, his first action since he was struck on the head by a liner off the bat of Stanton on July 4.

''Every step of the way, as we've ramped up his workload he's responded well,'' Boone said. ''We'd hope that he'd be able to see live hitters before opening day. Obviously, you'd want to get a couple bullpens in and then face live hitters.''

NOTES: Jonathan Loaisiga pitched three perfect innings. ... Boone wouldn't commit to a starter for the third game, on July 26 against the Nats. ... New York remains unsure whether closer Aroldis Chapman and second baseman DJ LeMahieu will be available for the opening. Both have been absent from training following positive tests for the coronavirus. ''First things first, is getting them negative and back,'' Boone said. ''And when that happens, we'll kind of make an evaluation of where we think they are and what's the best course moving forward. But I haven't let myself look at a day like, oh, we need them in by here.''

---

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

What to Read Next