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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

The biggest domino has fallen for Yankees, and it had a big impact

Will the loss of Aaron Judge be the injury that finishes off the Yankees? 

Aaron Judge of the Yankees reacts during the

Aaron Judge of the Yankees reacts during the third inning against the Royals at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

So this is what the end looks like. When Aaron Judge, No. 99 in your scorebook, becomes No. 13 on the Yankees’ injury list, it’s time to officially wonder if this has all become too much.

Judge, the strongest player wearing pinstripes, was in obvious pain coming off the field in the sixth inning Saturday. Moments earlier, he had muscled a single to rightfield, but it immediately looked like something was wrong.

Getting out of the box took effort, and Judge willed himself to first base, where trainer Steve Donohue and Aaron Boone rushed out to meet him. After a brief conversation, Judge walked slowly to the dugout, wincing, then disappeared.

You didn’t need a diagnosis to realize that Judge’s condition was serious, and not long after that, the Yankees announced that Judge had suffered a left oblique injury. Short of a broken bone, which he also endured last season, this was as bad as it gets for a hitter.

Boone refused to go into detail about the severity of Judge’s oblique issue until the results were back from his MRI and hospital visit, and Judge had not returned by the time the postgame access to the clubhouse was done. It's safe to say, however, that even a minor oblique strain can mean a six-week absence. That feels too long for a Yankees team already stripped of its best parts, like a Ferrari at a chop shop.

“Look, it’s Aaron Judge,” Boone said. “He’s one of the great players in the game. Such a key figure to our club. Not only just between the lines, obviously, but what he means to us in the room.

“This is not a time where we’re going to feel sorry for ourselves. We’re coming off a good win today and that will be the expectation tomorrow and it’s another opportunity for another guy to do his job.”    

Oh, right. The win. The Yankees did beat the Royals, 9-2, in a game nobody was interested in talking about all that much afterward. Gleyber Torres got robbed of a three-run homer by fan interference. Boone got tossed arguing about it. Judge, Clint Frazier, Mike Tauchman and DJ LeMahieu went deep. Masahiro Tanaka  allowed one run in seven innings and struck out seven.

It’s impossible to get too absorbed in one day when you’re constantly fretting over the big picture, and the Texas-sized dark cloud hovering above these Yankees. This year’s roster has resembled a long parade of dominoes, one knocking down the next, repeated with agonizing frequency. 

Before Saturday’s game, Boone actually sounded excited about having a few returning players on the horizon. Gary Sanchez (calf strain) is expected back Wednesday in Anaheim and Miguel Andujar (labrum tear) is headed to Tampa to ramp up his rehab.

“We continue to be optimistic there,” Boone said of Andujar.

But the manager soon was cured of that positive vibe, in the most cruel way possible. Despite the dozen players already sidelined, the Yankees were climbing out of their early April hole, helped by sweeping a two-game series against the defending champion Red Sox. Saturday’s win got them to .500 (10-10) for the first time since April 8 (5-5) and a few holes felt patched.

Frazier has chipped in with five homers and is hitting .500 (8-for-16) in his last four games. But he can  play only one position at a time, and the Yankees  now are down an entire outfield, with Judge, Giancarlo Stanton (biceps strain) and Aaron Hicks (sore back) out indefinitely. Stanton surfaced at his locker after Saturday’s game but hasn’t progressed beyond swinging in the cage and has no idea when he’ll be ready for the next step.

The “cavalry” — as Boone referred to his injured All-Stars — are too far off to lend a hand, and now Judge joins them.

The Yankees, to a man, stayed relentlessly upbeat about their plight, but what choice do they have? There still are 142 games left, and at this rate, they’ll be down to their Trenton reserves by June.

“If anyone can get out of this,” Stanton said, “it’s us.”

Maybe. But there is such a thing as a breaking point, and if the Yankees haven’t gotten there yet, they can see it from the trainer’s table.

When Brett Gardner saw Judge leaving the game, all he could do was shake his head. What else was there to say?

“He’s somebody that’s irreplaceable,” Gardner said. “He makes everybody around him better.”      

And now that Judge is gone, No. 13 on the injured list, everybody else may not be good enough.

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