Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees reacts after...

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees reacts after he was hit by a pitch in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, June 18, 2024 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The margin between the first-place Yankees and the doggedly-pursuing Orioles heading into Tuesday night’s Bronx showdown was a meager 1 1/2 games.

The difference between the Yankees staying atop the AL East or potentially tumbling below Baltimore in the not-too-distant future?

Approximately three inches, or the width of the baseball that drilled Aaron Judge on the side of his left hand in the third inning. Even though the 6-foot-7 Judge looks indestructible, he can break like anyone else, and the captain staying intact over the course of a long season is directly related to the Yankees’ title hopes not shattering into pieces.

That’s why seeing Judge’s face twisted in pain, the result of being nailed by a 94-mph four-seam fastball from Orioles starter Albert Suarez, basically silenced the sellout crowd of 47,429 at the Stadium. Judge typically is more stoic in these situations, rarely showing obvious signs of discomfort.

But not this time. Judge, clenching the side of his hand, took an agonizing trot to first base, swinging wide toward the mound — we’d describe it as a flyby of Suarez — en route. Once there, Judge was checked by the trainer, and it appeared he might come out then. When Judge remained, the Yankees seemed to dodge the crisis. And to later watch him jog out to centerfield made everyone feel that much better.

The relief didn’t last.

When Juan Soto stepped toward the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning, it was Trent Grisham who popped up from the dugout, bat in hand, before going to the on-deck circle. The Yankees’ worst fears were realized. Judge was done for the night — and perhaps considerably longer.

As soon as Judge vanished, nothing else really mattered in what otherwise was an impressive 4-2 victory over the Orioles. Nestor Cortes fired six scoreless innings (5 hits, 0 walks, 6 Ks). Anthony Volpe’s two-out RBI single in the second inning. Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu — both struggling mightily — each chipping in with a sacrifice fly. Even rookie Ben Rice, rushed up from Triple-A Scranton to replace the injured Anthony Rizzo at first base, got his first major-league hit, a line-drive single in the third inning.

Beating the Orioles was of paramount importance when the night began. With Judge’s status in doubt, it suddenly felt inconsequential. What was one victory in a 162-game season compared to losing Judge, the Yankees’ perennial MVP, for any extended period of time? In the long run, it’s a losing proposition. But after the game, Judge himself provided some positive news, saying the preliminary X-rays and CT scan were negative. All that was left was to wait for the swelling to subside before coming up with the final prognosis.

“Finding out it’s not fractured, not broken, is definitely a sigh of relief,” Judge said. “Anytime you get hit by 94-95, up in and like that, especially in the hands, where there’s so many small bones and ligaments, you just never know what’s going to happen or what it’s going to be.”

The Yankees, to a man, were holding their collective breath before Judge delivered the good news. Before then, there were plenty of anxious moments. The team announced mid-game that Judge was headed to New York Presbyterian Hospital for imaging tests and to be examined by team physician Christopher Ahmad.

As for Aaron Boone — who missed the start of Tuesday’s game because he was attending the high-school graduation of his son, Brandon — the manager heard about Judge’s injury during a phone call with GM Brian Cashman on the drive back. The two were talking about something else when Cashman told him that Judge got plunked, and that made for a nerve-wracking remainder of the trip.

“Obviously I never like any of our players getting hit,” Boone said. “And Judge is as tough as they come. So hearing that he was grimacing a little bit with some pain, then your concern level jumps.”

Judge’s scare was the latest in a rough few days on the Yankees’ injury front. First there was the oblique issue with star outfield prospect Jasson Dominguez. Then Sunday night’s collision at first base involving Rizzo, who suffered a forearm fracture and is now expected to be lost for a minimum of two months.

Soto’s MVP-caliber start to the season helped cover for Judge’s ice-cold April and helped the Yankees surge to the top of the AL East. But the thought of Soto having to carry the team again was probably too much to ask for, especially if it meant removing Judge, who was on his way to possibly eclipsing his AL MVP season of 2022.

The Yankees’ collapse a year ago was attributable to Judge’s toe-smashing crash into the rightfield wall at Dodger Stadium. And while it’s true they didn’t have Soto to pick up the slack back then, there’s really no filling in for Judge. Fortunately for the Yankees, now it looks like they won’t have to, and Judge doesn’t anticipate missing any games.

“I hope not,” Judge said. “Especially against this team.”

He meant the Orioles, who suddenly felt further away than a few hours earlier.

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