BALTIMORE — Early Saturday, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman called manager Aaron Boone. Cashman was inside the war room at Yankee Stadium, the central nervous system of the team’s trade deadline push, hunkered down with his key decision-makers. The Yankees were using the weekend’s series against the Orioles as a barometer. If they didn’t look like pretenders, the front office would take real action. If they stunk like the subway platform at the 161st Street station, Cashman would likely sit on his hands, an acknowledgement that the 2023 season might be on the bullet train to Failure Town.
On the phone, Cashman briefed Boone on some of the scenarios the front office had explored as Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline raced closer. But he didn’t have much to report.
“Things build,” Boone said, “things go away. But until something is imminent, like, ‘This might be a reality,’ we’ve got (tonight’s game) to worry about.”
Just a few hours later, an 8-3 win over the first-place O’s at Camden Yards may have given Cashman and company more to consider than they expected. It was a kind of victory that had been so scarce since star Aaron Judge sprained his right big toe and started a nearly two-month absence that coincided with the Yankees’ plummet in the standings. And it was a kind of performance from Judge — maybe the best hitter in baseball — that might reinvigorate hope that he can once again carry the Yankees, residents of last place in the American League East.
In just his second game back from the injured list, Judge crushed a 442-foot home run and went 3-for-5. He was the focal point of an attack that recorded 12 hits, including home runs from Giancarlo Stanton and Kyle Higashioka, and a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double from Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the sixth inning that broke the game open. It all supported starting pitcher Clarke Schmidt, whose resurgence continued with three runs in five innings before relievers Ian Hamilton and Nick Ramirez each threw two scoreless innings to close it out.
“That’s what it’s supposed to look like right there,” Boone said.
Boone was talking about the Yankees offense, which has been a massive disappointment, posting MLB’s second-worst cumulative batting average at .224. Its 454 runs were just 21st best in the game — a far cry from what many expected from a roster that also boasts highly paid sluggers Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Rizzo and Josh Donaldson.
Asked whether he hoped Saturday’s display of force may have influenced the Yankees front office to add more firepower before the trade deadline, Judge deflected. But he later hinted that he’s not ready to declare the season over.
“I wouldn’t count us out,” Judge said. “We’ll take it one day at a time, continue to show up every single day, and that’s all we can do at this point. I’m not going to look down the road or look past tomorrow’s game. If we keep showing up and doing our job and playing the way we can, we’re going to be just fine.”
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) July 30, 2023
Judge’s sentiment has been echoed by Boone and others as the team that was 35-25 when Judge got hurt went 19-23 without him. But, this time, the possibility of Judge being back to his game-changing self — even despite still feeling pain in his toe — likely made the message feel a bit different for those doubting the team. After all, when he went on the IL, Judge was leading the sport in home runs and seemed on track to nearly replicate the historic 62-home run campaign of 2022, which earned him a nine-year, $360 million contract in the offseason.
Judge’s return provided a different tone at Camden Yards in the third inning. Judge was booed heavily each time he walked to the plate in his return Friday night when he went 0-for-1 but had three walks. The same boos were back Saturday, except they quickly turned into wild cheering when he blasted a high 1-1 fastball from Tyler Wells far over the wall in center field and off the batter’s eye. It was a two-run shot that gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead — a night after the Orioles hit a walk-off homer to beat them 1-0 in the series opener. The Yankees wouldn’t relinquish the lead as the rest of their lineup seemed energized by Judge’s return.
“There’s no question that Aaron’s presence in the lineup is important,” Boone said. “But it’s also a peek into what we truly believe other guys are capable of as well. Giancarlo setting the tone with the early homer. Even down to Anthony Volpe, who hasn’t gotten a hit this series, he’s hit four rockets. If we can have those levels of at-bats … but Aaron’s presence was enormous.”
“He’s the captain for a reason,” Kiner-Falefa said. “He means everything to this organization. You see the difference in the energy when he’s out, it’s pretty self-explanatory. The fans rise up when he’s in the lineup. He brings a ton of energy that way. … I feel like when he wasn’t there, it was everybody flying open, trying to do too much.”
But now Judge is back. He might sit Sunday, Boone said, as the Yankees try to carefully shepherd him to playing shape. But Judge’s return has to count for something, especially for those inside the Yankees’ war room, who could decide whether the team’s 14-year World Series drought is more likely to extend to 15 years no matter what they do.
Or they could listen to Judge.
“You never know what they’re going to do,” Judge said. “But it comes down to us doing our job on the field and letting them take care of the rest. We’ll see what happens.”
(Photo: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)