NEW YORK — Late afternoon shadows encroached as Aaron Judge glared toward the mound on Saturday, his eyes trained on the 6-foot-2 figure of Red Sox reliever John Schreiber, still fully bathed in sunlight. It was, as Derek Jeter often remarked, the worst time of the day to carry a bat to home plate at Yankee Stadium.
Yet that was the assignment for Judge, the score tied in what would eventually be a 7-5 Yankees win. More than 47,000 fans stood, hoping once more that their tickets were good for history. Schreiber fired a fastball high and away; Judge believed he checked his swing, but a final decision went to first-base umpire Chris Conroy, who pumped his right fist to indicate that Judge had gone too far.
Judge barked as he returned to the dugout, gesturing toward Conroy with his left hand. It marked the first indication that Judge’s home run chase is prompting a sliver of frustration; certainly, it was Judge’s first such outburst since slugging his 60th home run in that magical ninth-inning comeback Tuesday against the Pirates.
“Every at-bat, everyone on their feet, the noise — I think it’s good,” said Anthony Rizzo, who followed that Judge strikeout with a go-ahead, two-run homer. “I think he thrives off that. It’s just going to get louder as we go deeper and start the playoffs [all the way] into October.”
With the media spotlight focused on Judge’s at-bats (even nationally-televised college football had to share the screen each time the leadoff spot in the Yankees’ order cycled around), Judge went homerless for a fourth consecutive game, kept in the park by Schreiber and Boston starter Nick Pivetta.
“This is the ultimate competition at the highest level,” said manager Aaron Boone. “Even for a guy who hits 60 home runs, he still doesn’t hit them every day. A lot of things have got to line up, even for the best of the best.”
The Pivetta matchup, in particular, seemed to bode well for Judge. Two of Judge’s previous 60 homers this season came off the right-hander: No. 32, a solo shot on July 16 in the Bronx, and No. 56 eleven days ago at Fenway Park, part of a two-homer performance that planted Judge on Roger Maris’ doorstep.
Members of the Maris family have been in attendance for each game of this homestand, all Yankees victories. Their New York City vacation has been extended for another night. Pivetta challenged Judge with three fastballs in their first-inning showdown; Judge fouled off two, then looked at the third.
“I’m always going to challenge Judge, all those guys,” Pivetta said. “It’s simple: he’s hit a curveball home run, a slider home run, but he hasn’t hit a home run off my fastball.”
In the third inning, Judge got the count to 2-2, then saw another Pivetta heater. The crowd roared as Judge barreled it, coming off the bat at 108.1 mph, but it was hit too high (43-degree launch angle). Center fielder Abraham Almonte gloved it; despite the decibel level, the play was routine.
“He just missed a few balls,” Boone said. “That happens sometimes. He’s done that a few times within this series.”
Those same fans would boo in the fifth inning as Pivetta lost Judge to a full-count fastball, the fifth walk Judge has worked in the past four games. The seventh-inning matchup with Schreiber lasted seven pitches; it ended with Judge’s sixth strikeout of “61 Watch,” a span over which he is 3-for-13 (.231) with two doubles.
Asked about Judge yelling at Conroy, Boone said, “I don’t think that’s unusual for him. It’s like when DJ [LeMahieu] claps his hands at second [base], you say, ‘DJ, showing rare emotion.’ He does it all the time. Judgie reacts; he just doesn’t argue with you. I think it was a case of, he felt like he held his swing. A simple reaction, but he was locked right back in.”
Judge was left on deck in the eighth, and surely he did not crave another turn on this day. All season long, Judge has stressed the importance of team goals over individual accomplishments, a mindset he has carried throughout the chase.
Because Judge’s priorities are on victories, Boone has said, he is in no danger of being distracted or overwhelmed by the ongoing stakeout for homer No. 61.
“I think he’s built for it,” said outfielder Harrison Bader. “I’m just excited for when he finally pops one. It’s going to be really, really great for baseball, and for him individually.”
It was appropriate that, after Judge’s parting words for the umpire, he barely had time to carry his bat down the dugout steps before Rizzo crushed that two-run homer over the right-field bullpen. Then, like always, Judge’s attention was on the club — celebrating his teammate and friend’s accomplishment as the Yankees marched toward victory.
“Obviously, we all want him to do it here, with how special it would be in this stadium,” Rizzo said. “Hopefully it comes tomorrow.”