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Viewpoint Using their best Judge-ment

September 19, 2018 GMT

NEW YORK — As full champagne bottles remained in hiding Tuesday over in the visitors’ clubhouse, Yankees manager Aaron Boone went ahead and popped the cork on his most potent potable.

The jury’s verdict on the American League East has long since been in. There has been no suspense for weeks. The Red Sox are guilty of a historic season. No, this wasn’t about the jury. This was about the Judge.

The Yankees most formidable slugger, most feared presence was back in the lineup for the first time since he suffered a chip fracture of his right wrist when hit by a Jakob Junis pitch on July 26 against the Royals. Judge played a couple of innings in the field last Friday, but now here he was, to a huge ovation, lumbering to the plate at 7:19 p.m.

This was supposed to be the first of two September series that decided an epic pennant race. Two terrific teams on a collision course for the same goal. Sure enough, as the calendar flipped to July the Yankees and Red Sox were tied for first place.

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Early on, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he examined the last month’s schedule, looked at those starting arms with the Mets followed by six games over the final two weeks against the Yankees.

“September is going to be fun,” Cora said he remembered thinking. “But it’s going to be tough.”

Didn’t happen. The Yankees are 37-31 since the start of July. The Red Sox meanwhile went an absurd 47-18. September wasn’t tough. And as the remnants of Hurricane Florence cleared, turning a matinee into a 7 p.m. start, this series instead would be a coronation of Boston’s regular season domination.

Yes, corks ready to pop with one Red Sox victory to celebrate the AL East crown. Cora smiled easily on this day. The bench coach for the 2017 World Series champion Astros talked about how celebrations are for the players and not for the managers and coaches.

“They’re the ones who play every day, go through slumps, hot stretches, diving to make plays,” Cora said. “It’s cool to be in the corner watching them, they’ll come up to you and give you a hug and tell you thank you.”

Boone, meanwhile, has talked how teams historically have entered the postseason in all sorts of ways, hot, slumping, middling and still have managed to have great Octobers. While true enough, Boone’s Yankees certainly needs to play better than the .500 pace the club has been on for weeks. A pace that left them 11 1/2 games behind the Red Sox heading into the series.

Judge initially was supposed to be out three weeks. That prognosis wasn’t even close. Boone said he’d write Judge’s name in just for fun during his absence. Asked how it felt to finally write it in for real, the manager smiled and answered, “Fun.”

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“Not only is Aaron a special player, he’s a special presence on our club,” Boone said. “I do believe there’s more impact there potentially than even his outstanding performance. We hope that’s the case. We hope he can provide one of those intangible things you can’t always put your finger on. I certainly believe he’s one of those guys.”

Cora had begun his ride from the hotel to Yankee Stadium at 9 a.m. when he got word of the weather delay. He stopped and had breakfast. The champagne could wait. Judge got in his swings before the hard rain fell. This was his second simulated game in two days. Adonis Rosa pitched. Boone, Brian Cashman, Marcus Thames, Reggie Jackson and trainer Steve Donahue were among 10 members of the organization studying Judge closely.

As long as the Judge wrist saga has dragged on, ultimately, the weather got Judge into the lineup a day earlier. Judge got finished around 11:30 a.m. Boone said he deliberated for about an hour with Cashman and Donahue and then with Judge.

“He had time to recover and was chomping at the bit to get in there,” Boone said. “He’s like, ‘I’m ready to go.’ So tonight we go.

“I feel physically over the last week he has been ready. It’s checking the boxes and making sure he has done everything. We want to start that clock of getting him in there and playing and getting him those ABs so he can find that timing sooner rather than later.”

Judge will be monitored closely and Boone will pick his spots over the final two weeks to rest his slugger.

“We’ll go day by day with this as far as how he’s feeling,” Boone said.

When Judge went out he was hitting .285 with 26 homers and 61 RBI in 372 at-bats. How far is he away from that 52-home run menace of 2017? Or more rationally, how far away is he from getting his timing down?

“That’s the great question,” Boone said. “We’ll find out. Hitting is a funny thing. Sometimes it happens real quick. Sometimes it takes a little time. Every year seems a little different when you’ve had a layoff or going into spring training. Hopefully, it clicks for him pretty quickly. Physically he’s in a real good place. Physically he is really strong. It’s just a matter of getting good timing. For even great hitters that can come and go a little bit.”

Boone, of course, has some tough decisions to make. The price of Red Sox regular season greatness is a one-game, winner-take-all wildcard with the A’s.

The Yankees entered the night only 1 1/2 games ahead of Oakland. There is no certainty if that game will be at Yankee Stadium or Oakland. Will he start Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino or J.A. Haap? The entire season could rest on that decision. Catcher Gary Sanchez has hit feathers since returning from the DL. Does Boone trust the power of his bat and his howitzer arm? Or do does he so fear another passed ball he plays Austin Romine?

If this night can be used as an indicator, Brett Gardner, the long-tenured Yankee who has had a lot of big autumn hits, could be watching as Andrew McCutcheon plays. That could get tense, especially with the fans. Yet for now, with champagne on ice and Judge out of ice, Boone could have fun writing his name in the lineup card and loving the way Judge extends his batting order.

After a tremendous welcoming ovation in the bottom of the first inning, Judge nailed a 1-0 Nathan Eovaldi pitch, but right fielder J.D. Martinez was there to stab the line drive for an out.

“We have to attack him the same way we always do and hope we keep the ball in the ballpark,” Cora said. “He’s a great player. He’s a game changer.

The Yankees hope Aaron Judge is a season changer. The champagne that matters is sprayed in October.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123