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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Aaron Judge returns to Yankees’ lineup Wednesday, but will he return to form?

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees strikes out in the tenth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Not seeing Aaron Judge’s name on Tuesday’s lineup card was expected. Joe Girardi promised as much in saying he’d give the slumping rookie a two-game, mental-health sabbatical. But Judge also was nowhere to be found in the Yankees’ clubhouse, even after a team official went searching for him at the media’s request.

Normally, this would be reason for concern. How do you lose a 6-foot-7 outfielder? But with Tuesday’s game postponed by 4 p.m., finding Judge didn’t seem to be much of a priority. Not for another 16 hours or so, when the Yankees show up for Wednesday’s doubleheader, and Girardi intends to play Judge again.

“Absolutely,” was the manager’s one-word reply.

It was unlike Judge not to be at his locker when he had to know the world was looking for him. For all the demands piled onto Judge during this remarkable season, he’s been extremely cooperative, both in good times and bad. But Judge had a defensible reason for sitting this one out.

If these days were meant for Judge to clear his head, to take the opportunity to exhale, then having to face a firing-squad of reporters, peppering him about his deficiencies, certainly would be contrary to those goals. And as much as we were curious to ask how he was spending this time off, or if it was helping, we understand him taking a pass on this one.

Those questions will be answered soon enough Wednesday, once Judge steps into the batter’s box again, and everyone anticipates some kind of transformation. Then comes the hard part. What if the Yankees don’t get at least a fraction of that first-half Judge back? What if this version, the rookie hitting .179 since the All-Star break with a .692 OPS, is closer to the truth?

Girardi’s decision to bench Judge for two days was the only option left. He either shrugs off the mental constraints and becomes a reliable run-producer, or the Yankees are forced to sit him on a more regular basis. Girardi, for now, believes this will work.

“I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen, but physically I think he’s going to feel a lot fresher than he probably did,” Girardi said. “And you hope mentally that it does, too.”

There is recent evidence of this strategy being effective. Red Sox manager John Farrell did the same thing with his own struggling rookie, Andrew Benintendi, when he benched him for two games at the start of this month. Benintendi was in the midst of a terrible 22-game stretch, batting .167 (13-for-78) with a .457 OPS and 20 strikeouts, before getting what turned into a three-day breather, thanks to the Aug. 2 rainout.

Since then, Benintendi has been rolling, hitting .323 (30-for-93) with a .960 OPS, including six home runs and 17 RBIs over those 23 games. Benintendi credited that short recess for not only allowing him to recharge, but dial back the pressure put on himself. He was the consensus favorite for AL Rookie of the Year coming into this season, and the daily grind of trying to live up to that can take a toll on a young player.

Judge seems to be experiencing a similar condition, but in reverse. He created outlandish expectations for himself with a supernatural performance in the first half, batting .329 with 30 homers, 66 RBIs and a 1.139 OPS through 84 games. While everyone knew that pace was impossible to maintain, it didn’t prevent Commissioner Rob Manfred from suggesting Judge could be the new face of baseball, a remark that came after he sent TV ratings through the Marlins Park roof in winning the Home Run Derby crown.

Back then, Judge’s brilliance was equal to the spotlight’s glare. Now, he’s getting singed by the constant attention, and Girardi was wise to provide a few days of shade. The manager should have acted sooner, as Judge’s confidence at the plate had been eroding for a while, but Girardi apparently fooled himself into thinking Judge was strong enough to overcome the typical rookie weaknesses.

Maybe Judge will in the weeks ahead. Ready or not, starting Wednesday, he’ll be centerstage again.

New York Sports