When Aaron Judge entered Thursday’s game as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, his presence provided a few answers.
Judge was able to stand upright. He could walk, and also swing a bat.
Anything else is pure conjecture at this point, a situation the Yankees apparently prefer in describing Judge’s condition publicly to the media, and by proxy, their ticket-buying, TV-watching loyalists.
In this Zoom era, manager Aaron Boone has been put in a difficult spot having to explain why Judge was kept out of the lineup for a second straight game Thursday when the team and/or player obviously doesn’t want any of those details revealed. Since Judge is only made available a few times a week, if the Yankees don’t choose to put him in the Zoom room, it’s up to Boone to take the heat.
And that makes for the awkward interrogations of the past few days, with reporters pressing the manager for specific body parts and Boone responding with vague, unhelpful diagnoses straight from the NHL playbook. If this had only been limited to Tuesday night’s late-inning removal and then a day off Wednesday, Judge’s health wouldn’t feel like a major concern.
But Boone said he expected Judge to return to the starting lineup for Thursday’s series finale, which ended up a 4-3 loss to the Orioles in 10 innings, and he didn’t appear until the eighth -- striking out on three pitches. Given that scenario, I asked Boone if Judge was going to require these sort of extended breathers from time-to-time, as a way to manage whatever crops up physically, since the team doesn’t see it as an IL-caliber ailment that can be cured with a longer break. His response was sort of a non-denial denial.
"I expect him to play regularly and probably play all three games into [Monday’s] off day," Boone said. "Obviously we’ll go day-by-day, but no, at this point, I don’t feel that way."
Words like "expect" and "probably" are clear hedges on Boone’s part. After all, the manager got burned Thursday when Judge couldn’t go, and that could easily happen again over the weekend, for any number of reasons. Earlier this month, after Judge missed back-to-back games for an issue the team declined to specify, the player himself later said it was a "left-side" problem that he attributed to too many extra swings in the cage. From what we’ve been told lately, this is a different area.
"Obviously, playing the long game," Boone said Thursday morning. "We want our best players to be able to post as much as possible. We're in the midst of our first long 13 games in a row. Trying to be as proactive in making sure our guys are good to post over the long haul, as opposed to reacting to something getting out of hand."
To borrow an NBA term, that sounds like load management without actually using the phrase, one that typically elicits a negative response. But keeping Judge healthy is no small feat. Since his Rookie of the Year season, when he totaled 155 games in 2017, Judge has played in only 63% of the team’s games during the subsequent three-year period. Without him in Thursday’s lineup, the Yankees had only one extra-base hit -- Gleyber Torres’ tying RBI-double in the eighth inning -- and went 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position, stranding 12 overall.
While the Yankees have sputtered plenty early on this season with Judge playing, his .874 OPS is the second-best on the team, behind only Kyle Higashioka, and the outfield gets awfully thin with him on the bench. Clint Frazier -- Judge’s replacement Thursday -- is showing signs of a resurgence at the plate, but Brett Gardner was in a 1-for-26 funk before his fifth-inning single and Aaron Hicks, after Thursday’s 0-for-4, now has a slash line of .139/.233/.266. (Mike Tauchman, traded Tuesday, went 3-for-4 in his Giants debut).
Ironically, Judge wound up pinch-hitting Thursday for Rougned Odor, who leads the Yankees with four hits that put the team ahead, including a two-out single in the fifth inning for his 10th RBI, tying him with Judge -- in seven fewer games. Boone later explained that it was the perfect spot to use Judge against the lefty reliever Paul Fry, but it didn’t work out that way. Judge whiffed on three pitches to fall to 0-for-10 with seven strikeouts as a pinch hitter for his career.
"That’s the game right there -- that’s the leverage spot," Boone said. "That’s the kind of matchup I envisioned."
Boone also pictures Judge back in the lineup Friday when the Yankees host the Tigers at the Stadium. We’ll believe it when we see it.