Aaron Judge, Gerrit Cole proving to be indispensable pieces for Yankees’ postseason push

Aaron Judge swing follow-through grey uniform close shot

Gerrit Cole returned Tuesday night and perhaps quieted concerns over his tight left hamstring. He delivered five solid innings against the Orioles, even if he didn’t exactly look like a gazelle while sprinting to cover first.

Good news for the Yankees, eh? And they secured a much-needed 7-2 victory over Baltimore to at least hold serve in the AL Wild Card race.

But the fulcrum of this win, just as it was the remarkable comeback against the Twins on Monday, was Aaron Judge. If Cole is the Yankees’ Most Indispensable Pitcher, Judge is their Most Indispensable Player. Without either, they’d be lost.

A day after he returned from a spell of dizziness to whack a tying three-run homer in the eighth inning against Minnesota, Judge exerted enormous impact on another game. He started a homer barrage Tuesday with a two-run smash in the first inning, offering a quick reminder of how good the Yankees can be when they are flexing their power.

In his post game press conference, Cole seemed buoyed by the early jolt, noting how good it was to “carry the momentum of coming back from such a large deficit (Monday).” On the offense as a whole, Cole said: “You’re always looking for something magical from these guys.”

Overall, the Yankees smacked five homers, matching their season high. Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit, Joey Gallo and D.J. LeMahieu also homered and now maybe the Yanks are distancing themselves from the awful way they followed up that 13-game winning streak. They’ve won three-of-four.

As for Cole, he allowed one run and four hits, striking out seven and walking three while improving to 15-7. It was not spectacular, not the stuff of October dreams. He labored at times, needing 29 pitches to wriggle out of the first inning unscathed, and a whopping 108 pitches overall.

Aaron Boone praised Cole’s fastball-curve combo, but Cole’s fastball command drifted.

Cole himself described the start as “a grind” and admitted he “would’ve liked to pitch deeper.” He praised Michael King, who threw three scoreless innings of relief “for picking me up.” Cole also wore a wrap on his left leg, though that might change in future starts.

“Overall, the leg responded really well,” he said.

And there were other good parts, too. With two on and two out in the fifth and Clay Holmes hurrying to get warm in the bullpen, Cole blew a high, 99 mile-per-hour fastball past D.J. Stewart for strike three, escaping trouble. Understandably, he seemed thrilled to get the out and it’s another solid start in a season that has him in the AL Cy Young race.

With both Judge and Cole delivering, Tuesday was a great start to the Yankees’ crucial stretch of nine games against teams with losing records. There’s only 17 games remaining overall. If the streaky Yankees are going to the postseason, Tuesday may have to be a blueprint of sorts, at least bat-wise.

“Keep saying it, but I still feel like we can be our best, hopefully, moving forward offensively,” Boone said. “Hopefully, continue to grind these at-bats out and our best offensive days are ahead of us.”

If they are, Judge will surely be heavily involved. If there were no Shohei Ohtani or Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

, we’d be talking about how Judge’s play puts him firmly in the AL MVP conversation. But Judge has 34 home runs now and he’s been the Yankees’ most reliable producer in a year stung by injuries and woeful underperformance.

He’s also a tremendous defensive outfielder, capable of shifting to center field to get more big bats into the Yankee lineup. He made a fine running catch Tuesday after moving to right field late in the game as Boone used subs to improve the gloves — yes, Gleyber Torres came out of the game at that point, a lingering storyline.

Judge probably has no shot in the MVP race — it’s unrealistic to think he can get to one or two against Ohtani’s two-way unicorn act and Guerrero, Jr.’s potential Triple Crown chase, regardless of how high Judge might soar in September.

But Cole just might win the AL Cy Young Award. Whatever hardware might go on whoever’s mantle, they’re both vital to the Yankees. If Cole and Judge don’t do what they’re doing, the conversations around the Bronx are much different, much uglier, than whether the Yanks can play their way into the postseason and be an October factor.