As soon as the clubhouse door opened, one of the newest Yankees, Jon Niese, approached a reporter, still excited about what he had witnessed a few innings earlier.
“Did anybody say how far that was?” Niese asked. “Oh my gosh. Did they get a distance?”
Forgive Niese for behaving as if a UFO had landed on the pitcher’s mound Friday afternoon at Steinbrenner Field. He’s been around Aaron Judge for only a few days. So when Judge’s fifth-inning home run caromed off the top of the gigantic leftfield scoreboard at a point roughly 45 feet above the wall, Niese couldn’t simply shrug off that missile the way the more experienced Judge observers did.
“I told them to check to see if the scoreboard was all right,” Didi Gregorius said.
As of this writing, the concrete structure is still standing. But this was just the exhibition opener, and Judge is going to get plenty more shots at one of his favorite Tampa targets.
After the rush to complete a $40-million renovation, the last thing this ballpark needs is something else to fix. If the Yankees are lucky, Judge will begin launching shots over the scoreboard. He was only a few feet short of clearing it Friday.
“I just took a swing and started running,” Judge said, trying hard to contain a smile. “I felt like I squared it up.”
Um, yeah. “Squared it up” is the understatement of spring training. The only way that baseball would have traveled at a greater exit velocity is if it had been powered by liquid oxygen. The Yankees didn’t provide an official measurement, but Niese said the bullpen crew estimated it at 470 to 475 feet.
Niese hadn’t seen a phenomenon like that since Mark Reynolds, then with the Diamondbacks, belted a home run into the rare air of the leftfield second deck at Citi Field in 2009. These are unusual blasts. The kind that make people stare slack-jawed as they wait to see where they come down. Or if something breaks.
“It really only went 395 feet,” Joe Girardi said, holding up his flat palm to imitate the ball’s impact. “Because then it stopped and went straight down.”
By then, Judge’s Clearwater-bound flight had merely reached cruising altitude. While his trouble making contact is well-documented, Friday’s spectacle was a prime example of what occurs when a pitch wanders into his happy place. Phillies reliever Elniery Garcia made the regrettable decision to challenge Judge with a 93-mph, first-pitch fastball that split the plate about belt-high, and he demolished it.
“If he gets the barrel of the bat to the ball, he’s going to do some damage,” Girardi said. “He’s a guy that can be extremely productive because of the power that he has.”
All of that destructive might, however, is useless without solid contact, and Judge’s principal flaw sabotaged him in his previous at-bat in the third inning.
Judge whiffed once every 2.26 plate appearances in his 27 games with the 2016 Yankees, striking out in 42 of his 84 at-bats, and went down on strikes in his first at-bat, feebly chasing a 2-and-2 slider in the dirt.
That was Judge at his most vulnerable, the version that could prevent him from becoming the Opening Day rightfielder. He understands that. Now he just has to shake those demons during the next five weeks and, to his credit, he wouldn’t beat himself up because of it. “Everyone’s got to learn to stay off that one — it’s a ball,” he said.
The key to that at-bat, in his mind, was not jumping on the second-pitch fastball, a mistake that eventually set him up to fail. As Girardi would say later, young hitters have to realize there are only so many pitches like that. Let too many pass, and they won’t be in the majors for very long. Judge remembered the message when he came to the plate again in the fifth and didn’t waste any time, immediately hammering the fastball.
If he keeps doing that, he’ll have a home in the Bronx. If not, he’ll be nothing more than a Scranton sideshow. “For me,’’ he said, “it’s just working on being consistent.”
When that day comes, he’ll be as dangerous, and as much fun to watch, as anyone in the sport.