Generously listed at 5-10 and 170 pounds, Andrew Benintendi looks as if his entire body could fit into one leg of Aaron Judge’s pinstriped pants. And for the first half of this season, the prized Red Sox rookie lived in the very large shadow of his Bronx counterpart.
But no longer. After Benintendi swatted a pair of three-run homers during the first five innings of Saturday’s 10-5 rout of the Yankees, restoring Boston’s 4 1⁄2-game lead in the American League East, there might be only one race left in this division during the next six weeks — for Rookie of the Year.
A month ago, this would have been a ridiculous argument. Judge’s epic performance before the All-Star break and his role in the Yankees’ unexpected climb to first place appeared to not only cement his ROY claim but give him the inside track for MVP honors. During that same period, it was Benintendi — everyone’s preseason favorite for the rookie crown — who struggled as the Red Sox underachieved.
Now that script has flipped, and there exists the very real possibility that the surging Benintendi could overtake the slumping Judge while leading the Red Sox to the division title in the process. Simply put, Benintendi is now putting up Judge-like numbers and the Yankees’ hulking phenom has shrunk in stature.
On Saturday, Benintendi became the first Red Sox player to hit two three-run homers in the same game against the Yankees since Jimmie Fox, who did it in 1938. At 23, he’s also the youngest Son of Fenway to put six RBIs on their Bronx rival since the statistic became official in 1920.
After the game, seeing Benintendi asked about all these historical feats reminded us of the same conversations we had with Judge almost nightly before the All-Star break. And his humble responses were pretty similar, too.
“I didn’t know that,” Benintendi said when told how significant those six RBIs were. “I guess that’s cool.”
These types of chats don’t happen much anymore with Judge, whose interaction with the media now mostly involves what’s wrong with him. He wasn’t around to talk after Saturday’s loss, and we can’t blame him for taking a pass. Judge went 0-for-4, struck out twice and hit into a double play, dropping him to .161 (15-for-93) since the All-Star break. He has five homers, 12 RBIs and 43 strikeouts in 93 at-bats and 27 games in that span.
Judge has whiffed in 29 consecutive games — 48 strikeouts in 100 at-bats — and by striking out once every 2.74 plate appearances in the second half, he’s approaching his catastrophic rate of last season, which was 2.26.
When things get this bad, the only recourse tends to be a day or two off, and Joe Girardi seems to be warming to that idea.
“We’re trying to get him back on track,” he said. “It’s been a struggle — there’s no doubt about it — in the second half. It’s definitely something I will think about.”
That strategy paid immediate dividends for Red Sox manager John Farrell, who chose to sit Benintendi for two games, July 31 and Aug. 1, then got the benefit of a rainout. Since his return, Benintendi is batting .484 (15-for-31) with three doubles, four homers and 11 RBIs in eight games.
To Benintendi, the reason for his quick recovery was clear. “I got some rest,” he said. “I wasn’t physically tired, but the mental break helped.”
Huge expectations can be a heavy load to carry and Benintendi, forced to deal with all that preseason hype, might have gotten weighed down by it during his disappointing first half.
For Judge, it’s been just the opposite. No one expected that much from him out of spring training — he barely made the Opening Day roster — but he’s been trying to cope with the avalanche of attention from his MVP-caliber first half (.329 batting average, 30 homers, 66 RBIs, 1.139 OPS).
Since entertaining a worldwide audience with his Home Run Derby theatrics, Judge has been fighting a losing battle in trying to maintain an impossible pace — or even come close to it. The cracks are showing.
Meanwhile, Benintendi’s lethal swing looks effortless. He’s making the job look easy — just as Judge used to do.
“I went through that for two months,” Benintendi said of Judge’s struggles. “I’m sure he’ll figure it out.”
But it’s Benintendi’s turn now. And if he keeps up this torrid pace, he might be the top rookie standing at the end, too.