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Aaron Judge’s diving catch preserves Yankees’ lead in win over Rays

New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99)

New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) makes a diving catch on a fly-out by Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria during the sixth inning of a baseball game Sunday, May 21, 2017, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Judge turned a double play against Rays' Corey Dickerson. Credit: AP / Chris O'Meara

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There may be catches the rest of this season that are as good as the one Aaron Judge made Sunday, but it is hard to imagine one surpassing it.

The rightfielder capped an all-out sprint by launching his 6-7, 282-pound frame and laying out in the right-centerfield gap to make a diving backhand catch at the warning track, robbing Evan Longoria of an extra-base hit to preserve a one-run lead in the sixth inning.

As the icing on the cake, three relay throws later, Corey Dickerson was doubled off first base on the play. It saved the Yankees in a tense 3-2 victory over the Rays in front of a charged-up crowd of 20,873 at Tropicana Field.

“I thought it was in the gap and an RBI double, and when he dives, I thought it’s a double that could turn into a triple,” said Brett Gardner, whose two-run homer in the second off Chris Archer snapped a 1-1 tie and gave him eight homers in 20 games. “That’s the difference in the ballgame. Hell of a play. Awesome play.”

Said Longoria: “Not much you can do other than tip your cap. We’ll be watching it on SportsCenter for a while.”

The Yankees (25-16) struck out 17 times against Archer, who fanned 12 in 6 1⁄3 innings, and three relievers. They snapped a three-game losing streak and finished their six-game road trip at 3-3. The Rays (23-23) had their winning streak snapped at four games.

Winning pitcher CC Sabathia threw 33 pitches in the fifth to balloon his pitch count to 91, and after Dickerson led off the sixth with a single to bring Longoria to the plate, Joe Girardi replaced Sabathia with Chad Green.

Longoria, who has owned Sabathia and the Yankees throughout his career, drove a 1-and-2 fastball into the gap in right-center, a certain RBI double at least.

Then, Green said, “Judge just kind of came out of nowhere.”

Leaving his feet and with his body horizontal, Judge somehow made a backhanded catch as he hit the ground with a thud at the edge of the warning track in front of the 370 mark. He skidded onto the track on his stomach and, from his knees, threw the ball in to Starlin Castro, who — noting that Dickerson was standing helplessly at third base — flipped the ball to Didi Gregorius, who flipped to Chris Carter for the double play.

Judge returned to his position with a deadpan expression on his face. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ dugout erupted as it would on one of his 450-foot-plus home runs.

“It saved the game for us,” Girardi said.

The crowd, about equally split between Yankees and Rays fans, produced an appreciative roar upon seeing the replay.

“It looked like he gained about 12 feet of ground in the last half-second of that play,” Tyler Clippard said. “I didn’t think he had a shot.”

After Rickie Weeks Jr. flied to left to end the inning, the Yankees poured from the dugout applauding as Judge trotted in from right, with Sabathia at the front of the receiving line.

“He’s a great player, he’s a good outfielder, he covers a lot of ground, so I felt like he had a chance,” Sabathia said. “He’s just a freak. When you get the whole team [out there], obviously one of the biggest plays so far for us this year.”

Judge, who leads the majors in homers with 15 but went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts Sunday, left the superlatives to his teammates.

“I wasn’t doing it on offense so I had to do something on defense,” he said. “That’s what I’m getting paid to do out there, make plays.”

Sabathia (4-2, 4.62) allowed two runs (one earned) and four hits in five innings-plus. Green pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings before Clippard struck out two in a scoreless inning. Dellin Betances struck out Dickerson to end the eighth, then struck out two in the ninth in recording his second save.

Archer (3-3, 3.76), who allowed three runs and six hits, struck out eight in the first three innings. But the Yankees roughed him up in a three-run third, with Gregorius (four hits) grounding an RBI single to rightfield and Gardner hitting a two-out, two-run homer to right for a 3-1 lead.

Derek Norris homered off Sabathia in the fifth, but Judge’s catch made the 3-2 lead stand up.

Green, who shared a moment with Judge in the dugout after the catch, was asked what he said.

Said Green with a smile, ‘Pretty much, it was just, ‘Thanks.’ ”

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