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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Disappointing day for Yankees, but Aaron Judge's surge is a bright spot

The Yankees' Aaron Judge gestures after hitting a

The Yankees' Aaron Judge gestures after hitting a solo home run off Orioles relief pitcher Bruce Zimmermann during the third inning on Sunday in Baltimore. Credit: AP/Julio Cortez

On seven different occasions this season, the Yankees entered the final game of a series with a chance to sweep.

And on Sunday, for the sixth time, they failed.

It wasn’t great that this particular 10-6 defeat came against the pitiful Orioles, or the fact that the Yankees blew a 4-0 first-inning lead, or how they suffered only their second loss this year (14-2) when scoring at least five runs.

But this game was an outlier in almost every way for the Yankees, and after a COVID-ridden week that included yet another staffer testing positive Sunday morning — bringing the total to nine for this traveling party — you can’t really hang too much significance on them coming up short at Camden Yards.

"That’s baseball," manager Aaron Boone said. "I thought we came out with a good focus today and just couldn’t close it down."

Pin much of that blame on Jordan Montgomery, who for whatever reason couldn’t contain the Orioles for even three innings, allowing six hits and five runs before getting the hook.

The Yankees’ rotation entered Sunday with the second-best ERA (3.46) in the American League and had given up three or fewer runs in 22 of their last 25 games since April 18. Overall, the pitching staff’s 3.18 ERA was tops in the AL (third in MLB), and all of the Yankees’ 22 wins this season came when the opponent was held to four or fewer runs.

Obviously, this miserable performance bucked that trend, and on a day the Yankees could have used Mike Tauchman, it didn’t help that Wandy Peralta put a bow on the W for the Orioles by teeing up a two-run homer by Maikel Franco in the seventh inning.

When the Yankees shipped Tauchman to the Giants for Peralta, the thought was that they were flush with outfielders. But having to put Aaron Hicks on the injured list before Sunday’s game with a left wrist sprain — and that worrisome damaged tendon sheath — made for a strange outfield alignment that included Miguel Andujar in leftfield and the newly promoted Ryan LaMarre in center.

Hicks’ immediate future remains sketchy, to say the least, and if you’re concerned about gathering storm clouds, Boone didn’t provide any updated timelines for either Giancarlo Stanton (quadriceps tightness) or Gleyber Torres (breakthrough positive for COVID). It sounds as if Rougned Odor (knee sprain) could return at some point this week during the series against the Rangers in Texas, but the manager didn’t offer anything definitive on him, either.

But even with all that, and Tyler Wade again taking over at shortstop, Sunday wasn’t looking like much of a problem. When the Yankees bulldozed Orioles opener Adam Plutko in the first inning for four runs, including back-to-back homers by Gary Sanchez and Clint Frazier, it seemed as if this would be over fast. What more of a sign could there be than a meaningful contribution from Frazier, who entered Sunday in a 4-for-35 spiral (.114) with one homer and three RBIs in his previous 41 plate appearances?

"It was needed," Frazier said. "I haven’t had a lot of games where I start the game off with a hit, so to get the first one out of the way, it felt good because that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last 30 games, it feels like, so I was really happy with it."

The Yankees’ good vibes, however, turned out to be fleeting — other than further confirmation of Aaron Judge’s return to superhero status. With everything that has besieged this team lately, it’s crucial to have a rock in the heart of the lineup, and Judge continued his beast-mode roll — only from the DH spot — with two more hits, including his fifth homer in six games, a 443-foot rocket that put the Yankees ahead 5-2 in the third inning.

Judge is now batting .571 (12-for-21) in his last six games, with those five homers, eight runs scored and six RBIs. The Yankees’ load-management efforts seem to be paying off for Judge, and as the rest of the roster shows cracks, keeping him upright is of paramount importance.

"I feel like he’s settling into the season in a really good way and love where he’s at, obviously," Boone said. "Still feel like there’s even more in there for him, though. That’s the scary part."

Seeing that from Judge again makes the remainder of this 10-game road trip (4-2 so far) a little less unnerving in the midst of this past week’s chaos, as long as a few of the other key bats are on the near horizon. Stick this L on Montgomery’s implosion and move on.

‘We’re getting there," Boone said. "We haven’t broken through all the way where we’re all clicking quite yet, and we’re just going to keep working to get to that point."

A few more healthy bodies returning will help. Netting another one of these elusive sweeps can wait.

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