BALTIMORE - The Orioles’ last shot Sunday was a deep fade hit into the shaded rightfield corner of Camden Yards, but Aaron Judge, a surprisingly nimble Sequoia, grabbed it with a diving catch that sent him skidding to a belly-first stop on the dirt track.
With the sweep averted, thanks to the Yankees’ 7-3 comeback victory, Judge headed in to join the usual celebration. But as he approached his outfield-mates for what looked like a three-way flying chest bump, Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks suddenly had second thoughts.
Maybe charging into a collision with the 6-7, 282-pound Judge wasn’t such a great idea. So as Judge came lunging in, Gardner and Hicks peeled away, leaving him to connect with nothing but air.
Afterward, Judge laughed at their attempted choreography. “I go in there a little aggressively,” Judge said, smiling.
He probably had some extra steam Sunday, riding the high of a two-hit afternoon that included a tying homer in the eighth inning and an RBI groundout during the Yankees’ four-run ninth. Whenever we’ve mentioned the opening-week travails of the Baby Bombers, it’s always been done with an asterisk, meant to represent the first small sample size of a six-month season. But on the flip side, you really can’t overestimate the importance of some early success and the chance for these youngsters to feel good about themselves, if only during the next 24-hour cycle.
Judge, literally, was the last of his NextGen peers left standing. Gary Sanchez already is on the 10-day disabled list because of a right biceps strain suffered in Saturday’s loss and Greg Bird again was out of the lineup because of the double whammy of a bruised ankle followed by a stomach bug.
“That’s tough,” Judge said. “You hurt your ankle, and the next day you’re throwing up.”
Not a pleasant thing to see your buddy go through, but Judge — unlike Sanchez and Bird — carries an immediate weight on his broad shoulders that the others don’t have to deal with out of the gate.
Sanchez had the starting catcher’s job sewn up before spring training even began. Bird, who hit from the moment he arrived at Steinbrenner Field, locked down first base relatively quickly.
The rightfield position, however, was a competition that wasn’t decided until the final week in Tampa, and Hicks remains uncomfortably close behind Judge on the depth chart. Hicks started Saturday in place of Judge, who was 2-for-15 with five strikeouts at the time. That’s a tiny handful of games, we know. But with the Yankees dropping the first two in Baltimore, Judge picked the perfect time to make an impact and help himself in the process.
After a walk and a groundout, Judge snapped an 0-for-11 skid with a laser-shot single that caromed off the base of the leftfield wall with such force that he didn’t dare try for two. Once the Yankees closed to within 3-2 in the sixth on Ronald Torreyes’ two-run triple, Judge opened the eighth with a booming homer off Mychal Givens, his first of the season.
“The first one is always the toughest, to be honest,” Judge said. “I was just glad to make some contact and get on base.”
It’s funny to hear Judge say that now, considering that his first major-league home run came in his very first at-bat, on Aug. 13 of last season at Yankee Stadium. As memorable as that was for Judge, it also spoiled us into thinking that he’d be denting the bleachers with 400-foot rockets on a nightly basis.
That didn’t happen. After three multi-hit games in his first five, Judge batted .121 (8-for-66) in his final 22 games with a .227 slugging percentage and 36 strikeouts. He then had to wear that over a long offseason before winning the rightfield job with a strong spring training (.333 batting average, three homers).
The regular season is a completely different animal, of course. And it’s never too soon to make your presence felt.
“I hope it helps him relax a little bit,” Joe Girardi said. “Sometimes young players can put a lot of pressure on themselves. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.”
If so, the other Yankees will be happy to stay out of his way.