NEW YORK -- With three showdowns in four weeks against their closest pursuer for the division title, the Boston Red Sox jiggered their starting rotation to make sure ace Chris Sale will pitch in all three series. But the New York Yankees might have a secret weapon of their own.
Get to know Aaron Hicks.
Or at least get reacquainted with him.
Though he was largely overshadowed by another Aaron -- you know, the power forward-sized slugger who hit gargantuan home runs and inspired his own rooting section in right field at Yankee Stadium -- Hicks was having a breakout season when he checked a swing in the third inning June 25. He strained an oblique muscle in his right side and sat out the next 39 games, during which the Yankees were 19-20 and went from being tied for first place to four games behind.
But Hicks finally returned this week and was in the lineup for Friday night's series opener against the Red Sox. And he wasted little time making an impact. Not only did Hicks hit a two-run homer that brought the Yankees to within one run in a five-run eighth inning, but he made a one-hop throw from left field to third base to double up Eduardo Nunez on a sacrifice fly in the ninth inning. The play bailed out erratic closer Aroldis Chapman and helped preserve a had-to-have-it 5-4 victory for the Yankees.
"Big-time -- I mean, big-time -- throw," fellow outfielder Brett Gardner said. "If he's safe right there, I think the next play is a sac fly and the game is tied, right? Who knows how it would play out? Just a game-changer on both sides of the ball. We're glad to have him back."
For any number of reasons, ranging from Hicks' 11 homers in 210 at-bats to his .909 OPS and his strong outfield arm. But then there's this: The switch-hitting 27-year-old is batting .292 with a .395 on-base percentage against left-handed starting pitchers this season. He has always hit lefties better than righties, and the Red Sox's rotation is chock-full of lefties, from Sale and injured David Price to Friday night's starter Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz, who will take the mound Saturday.
The Red Sox can rest assured, then, that they will get a heavy dose of Hicks over the next few weeks. He's 7-for-21 (.333) in five games against them this season but was absent from a four-game series at Fenway Park last month when the Yankees scored only 11 runs in 43 innings.
"It definitely sucked not being able to play with my team. It didn't feel good," Hicks said. "But now that I'm back, it feels good to be around the guys and see their smiling faces again."
Said manager Joe Girardi: "It was a pretty big loss for us. He's played really well for us all year. He's got an incredible arm; we've seen him throw people out. But just the two-run homer kind of got us going and made it a different game."
Indeed, the Red Sox appeared to have matters well in hand when they turned over a three-run lead to newly acquired setup man Addison Reed in the eighth inning. Reed faced four batters without recording an out, with Hicks' fly-ball homer inside the right-field foul pole serving as the biggest blow.
Didi Gregorius and Todd Frazier followed with flare RBI singles against hard-throwing Joe Kelly to open a 4-3 lead. The Yankees tacked on another run later in the inning on Ronald Torreyes' sacrifice fly.
But Chapman walked the bases loaded on 15 pitches to open the bottom of the ninth, a lack of control Girardi attributed to being "probably a little rusty" after not pitching for five days. Andrew Benintendi lifted a fly ball to left field, and although Hicks had no chance to throw out Jackie Bradley Jr. at home plate, he anticipated that an aggressive Nunez would tag up and try to advance to third.
"Once I saw he was going, I was already ready to make my throw to third," Hicks said. "I was just hoping it stayed on track and I gave [third baseman] Frazier a good hop. It was a big pick by him in order for us to be able to get that out."
It was the kind of play that made the Yankees exalt, and Red Sox fans yank hair from their scalps. Boston has run into 64 outs on the bases, 15 more than any other team in the American League.
"I do believe there's a means to an end with this," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who has always believed in pushing the envelope on the bases. "And while the outs are going to be glaring, I still feel like when we can put pressure on the defense, we're going to look to set that tone."
Said Nunez: "If it happened tomorrow, I would take the chance tomorrow again. That's how we play the game. That's why we're in first place. We run aggressively."
It might have worked, too, except that Hicks was in left field for the Yankees. The Red Sox ought to get used to it. They're going to see a lot of him over the next few weeks.