With the Red Sox coming to town looking now to bury them in the AL East, the slumping Yankees desperately need someone to pump life into their sputtering offense, and more than ever all eyes turn to Aaron Judge.
It’s a huge burden for a rookie, perhaps unfair in some ways, but in truth the Yankees aren’t serious contenders without Judge’s unexpected first-half heroics, and if he can’t bust out of his killer slump this team may not even make it to October.
As such, Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Indians was even more crushing than it sounds for the home team, in that Judge’s two-day break from baseball provided no miracle cure for his struggles.
Not that he had a terrible day, going 1-for-4 with an infield single to deep short, a walk and two strikeouts for the day, including a pinch-hit whiff to end the first game.
And afterward Judge said he was encouraged, saying, “I felt like I was swinging at the right pitches,’’ which he believes is his road map out of the dark forest that is his .182 batting average since the All-Star break.
Still, there was nothing that stood out as a reason to think it was any sort of breakthrough day, and so you can’t help but wonder where this Yankee season is heading now.
After all, losses of 2-1 and 9-4 in the doubleheader send them stumbling into the four-game series with the Sox at the Stadium, suddenly needing to worry more about holding onto their wild-card spot than overtaking their arch-rivals in the division race.
Indeed, after losing three straight to the Tribe, the Yankees only have a slim lead over the pack in the wild-card race, and if they don’t start hitting there is no guarantee they won’t be knocked out of the postseason by any two of the many chasers, from the Twins to the Angels to the streaking Orioles.
Hey, it’s very possible at this point, because, as Joe Girardi said afterward, “We need to swing the bats better, that’s the bottom line.”
Until the ninth inning of Game 2 on Wednesday, when Greg Bird hit a three-run homer, the Yankees managed only four runs in the three games against the Indians, and actually scored more against Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber on Monday than they did against either Trevor Bauer or Ryan Merritt in the doubleheader.
Perhaps Bird can spark the offense: he was 2-for-4 and drove in all four runs in the nightcap, but he is likely to need some time to get up to speed after missing most of the season due to his foot injury and the eventual surgery.
Bottom line, the Yankees need Judge to be dangerous again, and at the moment there may be more reason to worry than ever.
Though both Judge and Girardi downplay concern about the outfielder’s left shoulder, which he has been icing for at least a couple of weeks, Judge did admit the team has discussed the possibility of a cortisone shot, as well as acknowledging he’s feeling some wear and tear on his body.
“The whole body is kind of beat up,’’ he said.
Judge said the two-day break freshened him up but did give at least some indication his struggles at the plate could be related to what he’s going through physically.
“I think it’s just part of the season,’’ he said. “It’s kind of the body wearing down. You’ve got to make adjustments and fight through it.”
This was before Game 1 and Judge said he was looking forward to getting back into the action, hoping the break helped him. But the results weren’t there, right to the last at-bat in the ninth inning of Game 2, when he was beaten on a 97-mph fastball by Zack McCallister, and popped to shallow right.
After the game, Girardi was more adamant than ever in saying that Judge’s shoulder is not the reason for his slump.
“No,’’ he said impatiently when asked about it, “that is not the mechanical issue.”
All along, in fact, Girardi has maintained it was a matter of fixing Judge mechanically, but in giving him the two-day break the manager admitted concern it was wearing on him mentally.
And certainly one full game isn’t enough to say the rest didn’t help, either physically or mentally. Judge really only chased in one at-bat, his pinch-hitting appearance against Indians’ closer Cody Allen, when he was fooled by a 3-1 slider in the dirt and then struck out swinging at a chest-high fastball on 3-2.
In any case, the Yankees have no choice but to keep Judge in the lineup, because it’s not like the other outfielders are lighting it up these days.
Mostly Judge is either going to hit his way out of his slump or the Yankees might be in some real trouble in September.
I don’t buy the notion that what Judge did in the first half was a fluke, especially considering the plate discipline he showed, but the slump has lingered so long that right now it’s impossible to say the end is in sight.
Break or no break.