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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Aaron Judge drives Yankees’ power surge

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees follows through on his two-run home run in the seventh inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Aaron Judge, already establishing a rep for the hardest-hit balls on record, set the season’s top mark Wednesday with a bullet sixth-inning single that registered an exit velocity of 116.5 mph, according to Statcast, MLB’s digital toy to impress the video-gaming generation.

Fortunately for Rays’ reliever Jumbo Diaz, that laser-beam wasn’t one tick faster.

At 6-4, 278 pounds, the appropriately-named Jumbo makes for a very large target, but he was agile enough to barely duck under Judge’s line drive as it shot past him into centerfield.

“That was pretty close,” Judge said after the Yankees’ 8-4 victory over the Rays. “It was a scary moment right there. I’m glad it didn’t hit him.”

No kidding. For as disturbing as it was to see the high-speed collision between Brett Gardner and Rickie Weeks Jr. at first base — a crash so violent both had to leave the game — we’d rather not think about what Judge’s liner might have done to Diaz.

It’s just a lot safer for everyone when Judge hits a ball over the fence, as he did in the seventh inning, for his third home run in as many games. Fans sitting way out there have the advantage of admiring the fireworks, with ample hang time before the ball lands on them. There was no souvenir Wednesday because Judge’s 437-foot blast caromed off the glass facing of the 1893 club in centerfield, then dropped onto the netting above Monument Park.

Don’t worry. At this rate, Judge will be delivering plenty more keepsakes. His day starts by wrecking baseballs during batting practice, a spectacular show that transforms a mundane pregame routine into what amounts to a longest-drive contest. Even his teammates stop what they’re doing to check it out.

“Watching his BP, I’ve seen balls go further than any other hitter I’ve seen,” Chase Headley said. “He really is a massive human being.”

Size certainly helps, and when you’re 6-7, 282 pounds like Judge, the potential is there to put some crazy hurt on a baseball. But if he doesn’t make contact, it’s a moot point. And connecting with air, as Judge did far too frequently toward the end of last season, tends to look more embarrassing for someone of Herculean proportions.

That’s the key difference now. Judge could always launch tape-measure home runs. But after striking out once every 2.26 plate appearances during his 27-game debut last year, Judge worked at trimming that frequency in spring training. And through his first eight games, Judge has more RBIs (seven) than strikeouts (six) while batting .308 (8-for-26). We’re talking a small sample size here, but this still has to be acknowledged as progress, no matter how early.

“It’s baseball — it will humble you fast,” Judge said. “I’m trying to stay even keel.”

Big guy, small ego. And for all the attention hurled toward him, Judge tries his best to deflect it back on his teammates. When a reporter credited his power surge for the Yankees’ three straight wins, Judge brought up Headley’s fast start instead, saying how the third baseman’s contributions have been the key. While it seems natural for a young player to defer to the veterans, not all of them do that. But Judge gets it. And maintaining a more low-key mindset probably helped him weather last season’s spirit-stomping slump.

Now Judge is back to crushing pitches with regularity, and since everyone loves the long-ball, that’s a welcome sight. The Yankees’ youth movement got off to a sluggish launch this season with Gary Sanchez (arm strain) out for a month and Greg Bird’s minor ailments sidelining him for the past few games. But Judge has succeeded as a virtual one-man show, entertaining fans as soon as the curtain went up in the Bronx. Judge is the one at-bat you don’t want to miss during a beer run.

“Oh, I think so,” Girardi said. “Because of the size of him, people are curious to see how far he can hit a ball.”

And Judge? He claims not to look.

“I just make sure to keep running,” he said. “I’m not going to admire them right now.”

Leave that to the rest of us. As for anyone standing on the mound, don’t blink.

New York Sports