BALTIMORE — Aaron Judge took the hot and muggy field at 7:07 p.m., nine minutes before first pitch, to a warm round of applause from the thousands of Yankees fans that packed into Camden Yards. Idling in shallow left field, he placed one knee on the grass and put his head down for a moment, lost in thought. Then he stood back up, stretched for a few more minutes, and returned to the dugout, ready to bat as New York’s No. 2 hitter.
His first at-bat in his second game back from the injured list was a flyout to the warning track in center field. No dice. Judge put his head down as he trotted to first, knowing off the bat it wasn’t enough to clear the fence. Before the inning was over, Giancarlo Stanton, batting third behind Judge, parked a Tyler Wells high fastball to the left-field seats and gave the Yankees an early one-run lead versus the Orioles.
Unlike Friday night, when Judge served as the designated hitter, he had to find his glove in the dugout before jogging out to his familiar post in right field. Upon arrival, Judge played catch with fans sitting behind him in right-center field. This was Judge’s first time taking the field since he sprained his big toe on June 3 at Dodger Stadium. If he was limited, he didn’t exactly show it.
The definitive sign that Judge was back, really back, came in the top of the third inning. By then, the Orioles had taken the lead over Clarke Schmidt and the Yankees, but the Bombers were rallying. Kyle Higashioka represented the tying run on first base, and Judge the go-ahead run at the plate. He swung through a breaking ball from Wells for strike one. Then a curious thing happened: the Yankees captain kept his bat on his shoulder for a low changeup, a pitch he’s typically prone to chasing. Instead of falling behind, the count went to 1-1.
The next pitch, a high 91-mph fastball that sailed into Judge’s wheelhouse, was clobbered. Judge’s home run looked identical to so many others: leg kick, back-foot follow through, high-velocity swing (111 mph), deep long ball (442 feet!) to center field. The familiar sight of Judge’s trot around the bases returned for the 20th time this season. The familiar feeling of Judge giving the Yankees the lead with a go-ahead hit returned for the 11th time.
Rinse, wash, repeat. Judge’s majesty returned, and the Yankees were automatically better — the Bronx Bombers rising to an 8-3 win over the Orioles on Saturday night.
Aaron Judge knocks two-run home run as Yankees take lead over Orioles
“That’s us,” manager Aaron Boone said of the Yankees’ offense. “And that’s who we want to be.”
Nobody would’ve blamed Judge if he needed a handful of games, maybe even a few weeks, to get comfortable in the batter’s box and see pitches like he used to. It was a given that Judge would need some measure of time before he looked like himself again at the plate. As it turned out, he needed only six plate appearances following his return from the IL to blast another baseball.
After being sidelined for 42 games — or, 54 days — Judge is 3-for-6 with three walks, two runs, two RBIs and a home run since being activated, the reigning MVP picking up exactly where he left off.
It sounds cliché. Yet, this is a hitter who missed almost two months of playing time, followed by a short ramp-up and no rehab assignment. It defies logic that he needed no time at all to be just as productive at the plate again. And this time, he’s playing with a big toe that, to a degree only Judge knows and likely won’t disclose, still hurts.
Pain aside, the Yankees with Judge look like a team capable of reaching the postseason. In addition to his toe, someone should check if Judge’s back hurts, too. It’s a great deal of weight to carry the Yankees like this.
“Just trying to do my job,” Judge said of his home run, massively understating its impact while rapper The Game’s classic “How We Do” fittingly blared in the background.
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“There’s no question Aaron’s presence in the lineup is enormous,” Boone said. “But it’s also a beacon to what we truly believe other guys are capable of, as well.”
The slugger “just” doing his job brought smiles back to the Yankees dugout. Judge’s teammates looked like the picture of relief after recognizing the onus is no longer just on them to get the offense going and take the lead. Even so, there’s no denying Judge’s presence in the lineup has a ripple effect. That much was evident when Isiah Kiner-Filefa had what Boone described as “one of the best at-bats of the season.”
Behind 0-2 with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, Kiner-Falefa fouled off pitch after pitch to battle back for a full count against O’s right-hander Bryan Baker. Finally, on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Kiner-Falefa ripped a 105 mph double to left field, clearing the bases and giving the Yankees a compelling five-run lead over their division rivals. Kiner-Falefa pounded his chest at second base as Judge, who had just touched home plate, pointed back at him.
“That’s why he gets the big bucks,” Kiner-Falefa said of Judge’s immediate impact. “He’s the captain for a reason. He means everything to this organization. You see the difference in the energy, it’s pretty self-explanatory. You see the fans rise up when he’s in the lineup. Watching his at-bats, you see how good he is and how locked in he is. That’s contagious.
“When he wasn’t there, it was just everybody flying open and trying to do too much. Yesterday, he comes in and draws three walks, right off the bat. I feel like everybody was able to slow the game down a little bit just by watching his at-bats. When you get to watch the best player in the world, in my opinion, it helps out a lot.”
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After Judge went down in early June, the Yankees’ .218 batting average was the worst in baseball. Their 3.8 runs per game ranked 28th in MLB and their .295 on base percentage ranked 27th. With Saturday’s victory, New York has a 31-20 record with Judge this season and is 24-28 without him. Moreover, the offense has averaged 4.8 runs per game with him in the lineup. It’s to be determined if his presence alone can lift the Yankees to a playoff berth. They remain 3.5 games back of the Blue Jays for the final American League wild-card spot, with three more days until the trade deadline to make a splash.
In the meantime, the Yankees will try to manage Judge’s workload. They’re in the midst of playing 13 consecutive games against the AL’s best — the O’s in Baltimore, followed by the Rays and Astros in the Bronx. Boone said he hopes Judge can start 9-10 contests during this stretch. The slugger countered that he’s “not happy” about having to rest as he works his way back from the toe sprain but plans to work with his skipper on creating a schedule that suits both sides.
“I want to play him every game,” Boone assured. “Forget the toe, he hasn’t even come close to playing games for almost two months. As much as I want him in there, we gotta be smart.”
Being smart for the Yankees ultimately means using, if not starting, Judge as much as possible. Only then, it’s become clear, will they resemble a team primed to make a postseason push.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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