Aaron Judge’s hunt for HR marks adds buzz to Yankees stretch run

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The biggest show in the world came in the ninth inning, and the Yankee Stadium crowd stood and hummed in anticipation of baseball’s most predictable result: Aaron Judge whistled a pitch across the wall of the field.

With one on and one off, faced with a full count and a chance to even the game, Judge raised a slider from Royals reliever Taylor Clarke to that trusty old porch on the right. Almost everyone immediately reacted to the launch, thinking that the gentle giant had just helped his ever-growing place in Yankee mythology with his 43rd home run of the year and his 10th in the last 10 games.

But Judge soon realized that even he can’t impose his will on every clutch situation in a sport marked by maddening failure. Halfway through the line, he chided himself. While the mighty Casey didn’t come out, he did hit what turned out to be a harmless flyout in a four-hour, 8-6 defeat to a team that was in last place.

Three straight wins over the Royals and an 11 ½ game lead in the AL East didn’t stop post-game questions centering around Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trading TBEN and the Yankees’ need for a pair of arms. The fact that Clay Holmes hasn’t been the same indomitable shut-off lately was confirmed by Salvador Perez’s decisive three-run blast. The fact that Luis Castillo will be throwing the rest of the way for someone else will become apparent as he climbs the mound at The Bronx this week in the colors of the Seattle Mariners.

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Does GM Brian Cashman have a counter-punch to give his 69-34 team an even better shot at winning it all for the first time since 2009? His manager, Aaron Boone, said, “I’m sure it’s going to be a crazy 48 hours in the baseball world.”

Aaron Judge
Corey Sipkin

And then everything calms down. The Yankees will keep their runaway lead in the division through August and September, then determine their own legacy in October. They won’t have much to play for between now and the late season, so they will need a dog day to wear them.

Aaron Judge’s home run derby is that dog days cause.

Before Saturday, Babe Ruth was the only other Yankee to hit 42 home runs in the first 102 games of a season. Before Sunday, Judge had hit 12 in 14 games, a show of raw, explosive power that even the Babe had never matched.

Judge has 59 games left to break Roger Maris’ all-time franchise record, American League record, and baseball (non-PED division) record of 61. If he stays healthy, he will probably get it done. If he stays healthy, he will have a great shot at the all-time baseball record (PED division) of 73, held by Barry Bonds.

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In 1961, Maris competed with the revered Mickey Mantle for the right to outdo the beloved Babe for the crown for one season, and the stress of it all caused him to lose some hair. An immensely popular slugger in a very different time and place, Judge will not experience anything like that.

“Aaron is cut out for this,” Boone said. “When we’re in a month, in six weeks, and he knocks on the doors of that sort of thing, we understand the attention that comes with that. I can’t think of anyone better equipped to deal with it. And I think you can start at the beginning of the year with all the talk about the contract and how it affected him.

“He’s built for this, and I think whatever you throw at him, whether he hits a number or not, I don’t think the circumstances or the pressure will be a reason for him to do it or not.” it.”

Yankees
Aaron Judge reacts after striking out on Sunday in the ninth inning.
Corey Sipkin

Me neither. Judge has the most consistent heart rate whether we’re talking about the long ball or the long-term contract. In the wake of becoming the second-fastest Major Leaguer on Saturday with 200 home runs in his career, Judge recognized the individual achievement as “something special” but quickly shifted his focus to team-oriented goals. He spoke of the likelihood that pitchers would give him little to hit, and spoke of his willingness to accept walks and set up the batters behind him.

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In the seventh inning on Sunday, Judge did just that on a low full-count slider from Brooklyn’s Jose Cuas, pulling his second pass on a pitch close enough to include a hack. Anthony Rizzo followed with a three-point shot at Dylan Coleman.

On most days in The Bronx, that would have been good enough for the W against a really bad team. But Perez is a great player who put down some Judge-ian numbers last year, and Holmes’ sinker doesn’t sink like it used to, and baseball is baseball. The best teams can lose on any Sunday.

In the last inning of this Sunday, Clarke challenged Judge with a heat of 97 mph before knocking him out on the slider two pitches later. “I thought Aaron was ready,” Boone said, “and I just missed cutting him.”

So it will be. But in win or defeat, Judge’s home run race against history will give great meaning to relatively pointless end-of-season games. After the trading TBEN comes and goes, the big man will make everything around him feel bigger for the last two months.

And that can only be good for a team desperate for the biggest prize of all.