The Greatest show on earth was unfolding in the ninth inning, and the Yankee Stadium crowd was standing and humming in anticipation of baseball’s most predictable result: Aaron Judge sending a pitch whistling over the outfield wall.
With one on and one out, facing a full-count and a chance to tie the game, Judge elevated a slider from Royals reliever Taylor Clarke toward that reliable ol’ porch in right. Nearly everyone’s immediate reaction to the launch was to think the gentle giant had just helped his ever-advancing place in Yankee mythology with his 43rd home run of the year, and his 10th in the last 10 games.
But Judge quickly realized that even he can’t impose his will on every clutch situation in a sport defined by maddening failure. He chastised himself halfway down the line. Though the mighty Casey didn’t strike out, he did hit what turned out to be a harmless fly ball in a four-hour, 8-6 loss to a last-place team.
Three straight victories over the Royals and an 11 ½-game lead in the AL East didn’t prevent the postgame questions to center around Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline and the Yankees’ need for an arm or two. The fact that Clay Holmes hasn’t been the same indomitable closer of late was notarized by Salvador Perez’s decisive three-run blast. The fact that Luis Castillo will be pitching for someone else the rest of the way will be hammered home when he takes the mound in The Bronx this week in the colors of the Seattle Mariners.
Does GM Brian Cashman have a counterpunch to throw to give his 69-34 team an even better chance to win it all for the first time since 2009? Said his manager, Aaron Boone: “I’m sure it’s going to be a crazy 48 hours in the baseball world.”
And then everything will settle down. The Yankees will keep their runaway lead in the division through August and September, and then determine their own legacy in October. They won’t have much to play for between now and the postseason, so they will need a dog-days cause to carry them.
Aaron Judge’s home-run derby is that dog-days cause.
Before Saturday, Babe Ruth was the only other Yankee to hit 42 homers in a season’s first 102 games. Before Sunday, Judge had hit 12 in 14 games, a show of raw, explosive power even the Babe had never matched.
Judge has 59 games left to break Roger Maris’s all-time franchise record, American League record and baseball record (non-PED division) of 61. If he stays healthy, he will likely pull that off. If he stays healthy, he will have an outside shot at the all-time baseball record (PED division) of 73, held by Barry Bonds.
In 1961, Maris was competing with the revered Mickey Mantle for the right to surpass the beloved Babe for the single-season crown, and the stress of it all caused him to lose some hair. As an immensely popular slugger in a much different time and place, Judge will experience no such thing.
“Aaron is cut out for this,” Boone said. “If we’re a month from now, six weeks from now, and he’s knocking on the doors of those kind of things, we understand the attention that’s going to come with that. I can’t think of someone more equipped to handle it. And I think you can start at the start of the year with all the talk centered around the contract, and how that’s affected him.
“He’s built for this, and I think anything you throw at him, whether he gets to a number or doesn’t get to a number, I don’t think the circumstances or the pressure is going to be a reason he does or doesn’t.”
I don’t either. Judge has the steadiest heartbeat around, whether we’re talking about the long ball or the long-term contract. In the wake of becoming the second-fastest major leaguer to 200 career home runs Saturday, Judge acknowledged the individual feat as “something special” but quickly switched the focus to team-centric goals. He addressed the likelihood of pitchers giving him precious little to hit, and spoke of his willingness to accept walks and set up the hitters behind him.
In the seventh inning Sunday, Judge did just that on a low full-count slider from Brooklyn’s Jose Cuas, drawing his second walk on a pitch that was close enough to take a hack at. Anthony Rizzo followed with a three-run shot off Dylan Coleman.
On most days in The Bronx that would’ve been good enough for the W against a really bad team. But Perez is a whale of a player who put up some Judge-ian numbers last year, and Holmes’s sinker isn’t sinking like it used to, and baseball is baseball. The best teams can lose on any given Sunday.
In the final inning of this Sunday, Clarke challenged Judge with 97 mph heat before getting him out two pitches later on the slider. “I thought Aaron was ready for it,” Boone said, “and just missed clipping him.”
So be it. But in victory or defeat, Judge’s home-run race against history will bring great meaning to relatively meaningless late-season games. After the trade deadline comes and goes, the big man will make everything around him feel bigger over the final two months.
And that can only be a good thing for a team desperate to win the biggest prize of all.