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As Aaron Judge homers into history, depth will define Yankees season

Oswaldo Cabrera is learning on the job for New York. (Noah K. Murray/AP Photo)

NEW YORK — Most nights, when his hours in pinstripes under the brightest lights in the baseball world are over, Oswaldo Cabrera makes a FaceTime call to Wichita — or wherever the Wichita Wind Surge are playing that day. His brother, Leobaldo, is an outfielder for the Wind Surge, the Class AA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. And recently, Oswaldo has needed his help.

The reason: After playing just four games as an outfielder in the minor leagues, the 23-year-old infielder found himself not only playing regular infield innings for the heavily injured New York Yankees, but also learning right field for them in the middle of what had suddenly become an anxiety-riddled division race. He has played 17 games in right for the Yankees down the stretch. After each, he calls his brother for some coaching. Often, Leobaldo had already watched video of his brother’s game when his phone began to ring.

“He watched the video and give me advice. ‘Flyball coming this way, you have to run this way, you know?’ ” said Cabrera, whose sound fundamentals in his early outfield days earned high praise from his manager — so much so that Yankees coaches are now working with him at first base after injuries to Anthony Rizzo and DJ LeMahieu left them short there last week.

The Yankees spent the first half of this season dominating so completely that it appeared they would be charging into history right about now, watching the rest of baseball fret about playoff chases with their division and playoff standing all but settled. But they are far from that place, with their lead in the American League East at six games after Tuesday’s 7-6, 10-inning win in Boston and Toronto’s doubleheader split with Tampa Bay — with their lineup so undermined by injuries that players like Cabrera, learning on the job, are helping them cling to a first-round bye.

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As much as Aaron Judge’s historic home run pace and Ruthian heroics have defined this Yankees season, so too has the fear that he will not be enough. As much as a hot start and greater consistency helped the Yankees sedate their 2021 demons for a few months, aches and pains struck their already creaky lineup to awaken those demons just in time for the October push.

Rizzo is on a rehabilitation assignment and hasn’t played since late August because of back trouble that required an epidural. LeMahieu was supposed to miss a few days with a balky toe, but instead landed on the injured list late last week because the toe is disrupting his swing. Giancarlo Stanton is “back” from the Achilles’ injury that cost him much of August, but until last weekend’s series against Tampa Bay, when he homered Saturday and Sunday, he wasn’t really back.

So at a crucial point in what is a crucial season for an organization desperate to win in October again, the Yankees needed players like Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Aaron Hicks — the players they needed merely to chip in early this season — to carry them. Donaldson has been up and down. Kiner-Falefa has had a few big hits but is certainly no LeMahieu offensively. Hicks has struggled so completely that Manager Aaron Boone has often gone to less proven players like Cabrera, Miguel Andújar or Estevan Florial instead.

The Yankees are not alone in finding themselves relying less on those they built around than those they kept around just in case as the rigors of a 162-game season take hold.

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The Rays appeared on track to have their first disappointing season in quite some time until recently, as injuries to Wander Franco and others left them looking less formidable than intended. The otherwise talented Chicago White Sox are so beset by injuries — again — that they will be lucky to find themselves playing in October at all.

The San Diego Padres thought they would be relying on Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto down the stretch, but Tatis was suspended after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug and Soto has struggled. Starling Marte’s injured finger forced the New York Mets to turn to top prospect Mark Vientos this week, a week in which they also played without injured Max Scherzer — a week that began with them in a tie with the Atlanta Braves atop the National League East for the first time since April. Winning in the regular season, and therefore taking a representative shot in October, is as dependent on depth and timing of injuries as it is the quality of stars in the lineup on Opening Day.

One could argue the Yankees should be able to build more depth than most, given the financial resources at their disposal. One could argue they should have built more of it, knowing what they do about the sometimes-rickety veterans on whom they relied. One could argue they did plan for injuries: They gave veteran infielder Matt Carpenter a second chance, for example, and watched him hit .305 with 15 home runs in 47 games before he broke his foot.

They traded for outfielder Harrison Bader, the former St. Louis Cardinals defensive wizard who probably would have eaten all those innings Boone tossed to Cabrera had he been healthy. But Bader has yet to play for the Yankees since being acquired at the deadline, forced to cut his flowing locks and sit quietly at his locker while working his way back from plantar fasciitis.

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“It’s been weird coming to a clubhouse and not being able to play and perform. I’ve learned from a lot of players in the past to let your game speak for itself,” Bader, a New York native, said last week. “Being in this atmosphere, to not really have a voice — what I can do to help the team win, that is my voice — so the fact that I can’t play has taken my voice away which has been tough. But at the same time, it’s important to keep the big picture in perspective. My time to play is close.”

Bader started a rehab assignment this week, and he could be in the lineup soon. He, like Cabrera, has taken an unexpected road to an unexpectedly important role in this Yankees season. Like Cabrera, he may find himself in an unfamiliar position at the biggest of moments, capable of molding the Yankees’ season as much as anyone the front office planned to be there all along.

Cabrera delivered a walk-off winner for the Yankees a week ago. He hit his first major league homer in a key win over the Rays on Sunday. It is possible that with veterans healthy, Cabrera might not even make the playoff roster. Bader seems more probable to do so, but has yet to show he is physically capable. Such is the saga of 162 games that even the unexpected characters are forced onto center stage as late September nears.