Ninth inning. The Yankees down by a run. Aaron Judge at the plate.
This Memorial Day snapshot, taken at Camden Yards, was a scene already being staged in backyards and playgrounds, with kids in No. 99 jerseys pretending to be pocket-size versions of their newest pinstripe hero. And going by everything Judge has accomplished this season, the outcome usually tilts the Yankees’ way.
Whatever the imagination conjures up, Judge has made a habit of doing it one better, so the expectation Monday was that he would do so again.
Two innings earlier, Judge had smoked a full-count pitch from Dylan Bundy deep into the centerfield bleachers, a 431-foot blast that skimmed along at 112 mph with a cruising altitude of 64 feet.
Much to the delight of the visiting Yankees fans in the white barrister wigs, Judge’s 17th homer launched him past Mike Trout for the MLB lead.
As for Judge, he doesn’t get caught up in numbers, other than the final score, and passing Trout was news to him.
“Now I know,” he said, smiling.
But for Judge, the lasting imprint from Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Orioles won’t be that seventh-inning laser beam or the impressive discipline he showed to work the count full to get that belt-high, center-cut fastball. His takeaway is likely to be the ninth-inning battle with the Orioles’ fill-in closer, Brad Brach, who provided another lesson for the young slugger’s development.
Seeing Judge stride to the plate was the Yankees’ dream scenario for a comeback. “We got a shot,” Joe Girardi thought. “We still got a shot.”
For most of the 40,242 at Camden Yards, those not wearing Yankees blue, they felt just the opposite: dread. But the matchup certainly favored Brach. Judge had struck out three times in four previous plate appearances against him — the other was a walk — and recalled being fed a steady diet of breaking pitches. Starting him outside, then busting Judge in.
On this occasion, however, Brach flipped the script, pounding him with fastballs ranging from 95 to 97 mph on the ballpark gun. Judge took the first two pitches for strikes, and they were so perfectly spotted on the plate’s outside edge that a swing would have done him no good anyway. After another fastball missed wide, Brach sent a 95-mph heater on the same rail the first two traveled. Judge contacted nothing but air on his only swing.
“He made three quality pitches on the corner,” Judge said. “You’ve got to tip your cap.”
There was nothing to regret. Brach surprised Judge by switching up his plan of attack and executed that plan flawlessly. When Judge does connect, as he did in the seventh, the damage often is profound. But he couldn’t touch Brach on this particular day, even with everyone’s ears still ringing from that spectacular blast off Bundy.
Even in a loss, Judge’s pyrotechnics generate plenty of chatter afterward. Just not much from him. When asked if he knew the earlier line drive would reach the seats despite its rather low trajectory, Judge laughed. “Uh, yeah,” he said.
The exit velo isn’t just a stat geeks’ playtoy. Those crazy numbers are what enable Judge’s rockets to defy gravity for so long. They disappear over the fence at a time when those hit by mere mortals fizzle out and drop into an outfielder’s glove. Judge’s 17th homer — at this pace, he would hit 57 — was another example of that.
“It’s a line drive,” Girardi said. “That’s how far his line drives go. They’re different than other people’s line drives.”
And he’s been air-mailing them at such a prolific rate that his teammates are stunned when one of his fly balls falls short. While Monday’s scorecard will show that Judge flied out to rightfielder Mark Trumbo in the second inning, the postgame discussion with Girardi involved how he narrowly missed putting that 91-mph fastball into orbit, as if that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Judge would only shrug. Sometimes the ball goes over the fence. Other times, as in the ninth inning Monday, he strikes out. He tries not to make it all that complicated. The drama is for us to add. He’s already looking forward to the next time.