2017-08-17 07:48:03
On Baseball: Even in a Slump, the Big Aaron Judge Homers Keep Coming

07:48, August 17 154 0

The perfect connection, the pop of ball striking bat in just the right place, is really the absence of feeling. The sting of making contact near the hands, or down at the end of the barrel, disappears. The sweet spot is aptly named.

“They all feel the same,” Aaron Judge said late Wednesday at Citi Field, where his skyscraping homer off Robert Gsellman might have scrambled the radar systems at La Guardia Airport. “Usually when you get on the sweet spot of the bat, you don’t really feel it.”

Judge has yearned to feel that more often since showing off for the baseball world at the All-Star Home Run Derby last month. His majestic home run to section 536 of the third deck helped propel the Yankees to a 5-3 victory over the Mets, and give them a chance to sweep the four-game series on Thursday.

It was the seventh homer since the All-Star break for Judge, who still leads the American League with 37. But he is hitting just .185 since the break, and in his last at-bat Wednesday he set an inglorious record: 33 games in a row with a strikeout, the longest streak ever by a non-pitcher in a single season.

“There’s great pitchers in this league, and you’re going to get fooled sometimes; they’re going to get you,” Judge said. “If I keep taking my right swings and swing at the right pitches, good things will happen. People strike out. I strike out a lot – it happens. Just got to keep working.”

Judge has 159 strikeouts this season, second in the majors to Minnesota’s Miguel Sano, who was also an All-Star. The low average and whiffs recall the frustration of last summer’s cameo, when Judge hit .179 and fanned in half his at-bats.

Now, after months of stardom, Judge knows he can weather a slump. He has seen more high fastballs in the second half and chased more pitches out of the strike zone, but has reason to believe he can adjust.

“If I feel good, I’m happy with that,” Judge said. “The results will come or won’t come. It’s just about sticking with the process, sticking what I know is going to work. If I do that, good things usually happen.”

He does not need to see that for himself. When Judge sends a ball into orbit, he puts his head down and trots. Even the pitcher wants to sneak a peek.

“Home runs like that, you just have to watch them,” Gsellman said, but Judge knows when a ball is gone and does not admire his work. His teammates pointed out the landing spot to him on Wednesday, and did not believe the announced distance of 457 feet.

“If that ball only went 450, no ball’s ever going to go 500 feet,” Chase Headley said. “I know it’s high and coming down straight, but that ball looked like it went a long ways to me.”

Todd Frazier has won a Homer Run Derby, in 2015, and said he has reached the third deck at Citi Field during batting practice – but only once, and much closer to the foul pole than Judge’s blast, which soared over left-center field. There are homers, and there are Aaron Judge homers.

“You don’t see those balls go up there so easy, with such an easy swing,” Frazier said. “It just looks effortless, like a nice pitcher, like when Luis Severino throws – he’s got a nice and easy 99. When his swing is like that, smooth – boom! When he’s not opening up and he’s staying through the ball? God.”

In batting practice on Wednesday, Frazier said, Judge struck the Nikon billboard over the center field bleachers and television camera deck. In Toronto, he threatened the most distant windows of the stadium hotel.

Before now, Frazier said, the best batting-practice hitter he ever saw was Wily Mo Pena, an itinerant slugger of the mid-2000s with intoxicating power. Then he met Judge.

“His B.P. right now is 10 times better than that,” Frazier said.

Pena is a cautionary tale; he never hit more than 26 homers in a major league season, tumbled to the independent Bridgeport Bluefish and has spent his 30s playing in Japan. Judge has already ascended much higher, of course, but the pressure to stay there is immense.

At 25, he is the centerpiece of the Yankees, with his own wood-paneled section in the right field seats in the Bronx and the expectations he set with his scorching first half. To the Yankees, there is nothing quite as precious as a homegrown, must-see star – exactly what they need to keep fans engaged with their Tiffany brand.

Judge seems likely to hold up under that weight. He is driven but humble. Just as everyone watches his homers but him, Judge says little about his feats and lets others pile on praise.

“Every day, he amazes me – he keeps hitting them further and further every time,” said Didi Gregorius, who added that Judge has not changed at all through his second-half slide.

“It’s one of the hardest things in the game, because you always want to have success. But you’ve got to still believe in the process, believe in everything. Everybody goes through ups and downs.”

Even in a down spell, Judge can redefine the meaning of up.