NEW YORK — The fleeting moment has stuck with Aaron Boone. Last May, in a spellbinding game at Yankee Stadium against the Boston Red Sox, third baseman Miguel Andujar turned to Boone, the New York Yankees’ manager, with the wonder of a rookie who had finally, truly made it.
“You could feel the environment, you could feel the crowd,” Boone said on Friday. “And Andujar said, ‘This is the big leagues.’”
As the NBA and the NHL play their championship rounds, baseball counters with its best regular-season rivalry: the Sox and the Yankees, in their usual three-network weekend — MLB Network on Friday night, Fox on Saturday night, ESPN on Sunday night. A lot has changed since their last meeting.
The Yankees were 6-9 when the teams began a two-game series in the Bronx in mid-April. Since then, the Yankees have gone 30-10 (before J.A. Happ faced Boston’s Chris Sale on Friday). The Red Sox had improved, too, but still trailed the Yankees by 7 1/2 games — and Tampa Bay by seven — in the American League East entering Friday’s game. They have struggled to replace the injured Nathan Eovaldi in their rotation, and their bullpen has been taxed.
“We’ve had to go to guys early and often,” manager Alex Cora said. “It’s not easy. Having the rotation and having those guys going deep in the game, that’s how we operate here.”
The Red Sox used each of their five starters as relievers at various points in the last postseason, a strategy that helped win the World Series. Now they have five relievers who have pitched in Class AAA this season, a marked contrast to the Yankees’ bullpen of riches.
The Yankees ask a lot of their relievers, too, but lately they have scripted their outings with precision. They had a pitcher go just four innings in each of their two victories this week against the San Diego Padres — David Hale on Monday, James Paxton on Wednesday — and others filled in the rest for short bursts that totaled 10 shutout innings, with 10 strikeouts and one walk.
“Obviously their bullpen has been outstanding,” Cora said. “If they have the lead, they have done great at finishing games, and the last two weeks they’re getting into that role where they’re behind, they hit one out of the ballpark and get momentum and it’s hard to stop.”
The bigger story, of course, is both remarkable and marketable: the success of the Yankees who have replaced the injured Andujar, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Luis Severino and Dellin Betances, among others. The team store on the concourse level now sells “Next Man Up” T-shirts for a mere $35.99, and the players are showing the wisdom within that cliché.
Two of their starters on Friday have played for three organizations since the start of spring training: the designated hitter Kendrys Morales bounced from Toronto to Oakland to the Yankees, and right fielder Cameron Maybin from San Francisco to Cleveland to the Yankees. Third baseman Gio Urshela — John Sterling’s “most happy fella” — was purchased from Toronto last August and then left off the 40-man roster.
Urshela has been a headliner, with a .331 average before Friday, like second baseman D.J. LeMahieu (.313) and first baseman Luke Voit (14 homers, 38 runs batted in). Imagine how dreary Boone’s daily injury updates would sound without that production.
“It would probably be different, but I know it’s been a lot of fun to come to work every day,” Boone said, “and it’s because of the guys that we have in that room that have come into the organization, or are our guys. It’s been a lot of fun to walk through those doors.”
Most of the wounded are not beating down those doors. Judge, who has a strained left oblique, is hitting off a tee, meaning he still must graduate to cage work, batting practice and a rehabilitation assignment before returning to the Yankees. Stanton — recovering from injuries to his biceps and calf — ran sprints on Thursday but is not yet taking batting practice.
Betances, whose shoulder trouble kept his fastball below 90 mph in spring training, said he felt strong in the bullpen on Thursday, and he played long toss on Friday. He will throw in the bullpen again on Sunday, but he sees no reason to force a quick return.
“I don’t think there’s any sense in rushing back and having a setback,” Betances said. “That’s probably why it’s been a little slow.”
By winning eight series in a row — a streak they have not exceeded since the joyride of 1998 — the Yankees have earned the luxury of taking their time with the injured players. But they should still get greedy and add a fresh arm to their rotation by making a serious play for Dallas Keuchel, the former Cy Young Award winner for the Houston Astros.
With the draft beginning Monday, Keuchel’s protracted free agency should resolve itself soon, because teams will no longer need to sacrifice a draft pick to sign him (or the former Boston closer Craig Kimbrel, another unsigned star).
Keuchel is durable — he faced the most batters in the majors last season — and while he would bring down the Yankees’ team strikeout rate of 9.6 per nine innings, he has shown he can thrive by limiting hard contact with sinkers and cutters. Keuchel also won the wild-card game at Yankee Stadium in 2015, and avoiding that game is the mission of the team he could join.
The Yankees have entered the playoffs as a wild card in each of their last three postseason appearances, and the Red Sox have won the AL East four times since the Yankees last did it in 2012. Even without their shared history, that is reason enough to stoke a rivalry.