NEW YORK (AP) — Looking for a big start, the New York Yankees found an unorthodox spot for Aaron Judge in his long-awaited return to the lineup.
After missing two months with a left oblique injury, Judge was back Friday night against Houston and batted leadoff for the first time in his major league career.
“I loved it. More at-bats. That’s the best part about it,” Judge said after going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts in a 4-1 victory. “Every time I came up it felt like there was somebody on base somewhere, so it’s a good little spot. Hope it was not my last time doing it.”
Normally the team’s No. 2 hitter, the 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger was moved to the top spot as manager Aaron Boone toys with how best to arrange his power-packed batting order. Regular leadoff man DJ LeMahieu was rested.
“I’m just trying to get my best players up there as much as possible,” Boone said.
Judge received a boisterous ovation from the Yankee Stadium crowd when No. 99 was introduced with a “Welcome back!” from public address announcer Paul Olden. Judge ran the count full his first time up before grounding out to first base against right-hander Brad Peacock.
“Good to be back,” Judge said. “Just glad to be doing what I love again.”
“No rust. I didn’t skip a beat because mentally, sitting on the sidelines, I was watching every single game — even if I wasn’t here,” he added. “I was trying to visualize at-bats just so when I came back, I didn’t skip a beat.”
Astros manager AJ Hinch deadpanned that Judge is the largest leadoff hitter he’ll ever manage against.
“He brings an immediate threat from the first pitch of the game,” Hinch said. “So, it’s a different look.”
Along with his prodigious power, Judge has a sharp eye at the plate. The right fielder batted leadoff in spring training last year as the Yankees explored the idea, but he’d never started there in a regular-season game until Friday.
Back in March 2018, Judge said high school might have been the last time he hit leadoff but it was “no big deal” and “something we can do in the season.”
“Just having him in the lineup is different. He brings a presence,” Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks said. “That can be one of the best leadoff hitters of all-time.”
Gary Sánchez batted second for New York ahead of lefty-swinging Didi Gregorius and cleanup man Giancarlo Stanton. Edwin Encarnación was fifth in front of lefty Brett Gardner, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela and Cameron Maybin.
Hicks was out of the starting lineup with a sore right shoulder. In addition to LeMahieu, first baseman Luke Voit also was rested.
Hicks entered on defense in the fourth inning after Maybin exited with a strained left calf. He was scheduled for an MRI and is headed to the injured list.
“It’ll be a while,” Boone said.
Maybin appeared to get hurt diving back to first on a pickoff attempt.
Encarnación, who played first base, was acquired last weekend in a trade with Seattle.
“Obviously we gave Luke and DJ the day today, so a little different construction and I just felt it made the most sense,” Boone said. “And with Hicks down, I thought it was the right spot for (Judge) today.”
The 27-year-old Judge was batting .288 with five homers and 11 RBIs when he strained his left oblique on a swing April 20. New York went 37-17 without him despite missing several other injured stars during that stretch as well, such as Stanton and Gregorius.
Judge, the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year, was reinstated from the injured list before the game. He went 2 for 16 with a homer during a five-game rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre that wrapped up Wednesday.
“To have him back now is good, and exciting for all of us,” Boone said.
The AL East-leading Yankees have won seven straight to move a season-high 21 games over .500 at 48-27.
“They’re getting healthy,” Hinch said. “When you can add a guy like Judge to their lineup that was already doing pretty good things offensively, that’s dangerous for their opponents.”
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