The Yankees don't need Aaron Judge to win, but they need all the depth they can get

NEW YORK — On the first day of summer, Aaron Judge insisted that he felt like it was April 21. Despite missing two months with a strained left oblique, Judge felt like he “hadn’t skipped a beat.”

But in fact, those two months have been huge for the New York Yankees. Back then, the club was 3.5 games behind the Tampa Bay Rays and hovering right at .500. Entering Friday, they were 4.5 games up in the AL East, boasting baseball’s third-best record. Along the way, the Yankees proved they don’t need Judge in the lineup to win games. They went 31-17 without him, overcoming not just his absence, but also 19 other IL stints from stars like Giancarlo Stanton and Didi Gregorius.

This seemingly bottomless reserve of resilience has been the overwhelming narrative for the first half of the Yankees’ season. But even that isn’t quite the right word. “Resilience” implies a measure of down-but-not-out, yet with backups like Gio Urshela slashing .307/.360/.455, the Yankees never even really looked down. But whatever you call the depth they’ve needed to climb atop the division despite being ravaged by injuries, it was on display again Friday night, when they replaced a .314 hitter in the leadoff spot with the face of the franchise.

New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius (18) celebrates with right fielder Aaron Judge, center, and second baseman Gleyber Torres after the Yankees defeated the Houston Astros 4-1 in a baseball game Friday, June 21, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Aaron Judge returned to the New York Yankees on Friday night after missing two months with an oblique injury. (AP)

About that absence and that lineup placement: Before the game, manager Aaron Boone explained that DJ LeMahieu (as well as Luke Voit) were both given the night off simply because that’s a luxury the Yankees can afford, and that Judge was hitting leadoff for the first time in his career because Boone was “just trying to get [his] best players up there as much as possible.”

That second part didn’t really pan out. And the Yankees proved they didn’t need Judge to win Friday night, either, their seventh victory in a row to improve to a season-best 21 games over .500. The bullpen threw four shutout innings, Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres each homered for the third straight game, and Judge was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the 4-1 victory over the Houston Astros — although you wouldn’t know it from the way the right-field bleachers were still chanting “AA-RON JU-UDGE” when he trotted out to the field for each top half.

It may seem like the Yankees have too much talent on the roster — Gregorius, Stanton, Judge are all back and they’ve picked up Edwin Encarnación — but if the value of that depth hasn’t been sufficiently justified by the first half of the season, it was certainly underscored on Friday night. Cameron Maybin, who had been hitting .415 in his last 12 games, will go on the IL (make that 21 total injured Yankees on the season, one more than they had all of last year) after exiting the game in the fourth inning with a strained left calf.

He was replaced by Aaron Hicks, who had missed two games himself due to shoulder discomfort (an MRI came back clean, and he was expected to be back in the starting lineup Saturday after getting a cortisone shot). Boone didn’t announce a corresponding roster move, which means it remains to be seen whether this latest blow will present a path back to the majors for Clint Frazier — who was slashing .283/.330/.513 before getting optioned after the Encarnación trade and to make room for Stanton — or a chance to bolster their bullpen with an extra arm.

In the middle of the game, Major League Baseball announced the finalists for All-Star elections. Among the nine outfielders with enough fan votes to advance was Judge, who was having a bad night in his 21st game of the season. That says something about Judge, whose value to the team and the city extends beyond what he does in a given game or even what he doesn’t do for two months at the start of the season. He was one of five Yankees in a group of 34 finalists. That says something about how the team has managed to be successful without him and even when he’s not.

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