Yankees Thoughts: Aaron Judge Can’t Do It Alone

The Yankees arrived in Baltimore needing to cut into their division and wild-card deficits and prove between now and Tuesday they are a team worth adding to by the trade deadline. Instead, they were shut out.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. Friday night in Baltimore had the feeling of a postseason game, as it should with the Orioles trying to win the AL East for the first time in a decade and reach the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and the Yankees trying to overcome a loss column deficit for the final wild-card berth. And like a playoff game, the Yankees’ offense was nowhere to be found.

    2. Grayson Rodriguez entered the 2023 as the sixth-best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. He was part of the Orioles’ rotation out of spring training, but after getting knocked around to the tune of a 7.35 ERA through 10 starts, the Orioles sent him down to Triple-A at the end of May. While Baseball America’s sixth-best prospect apparently needed more refinement in the minors, the publication’s preseason 14th-ranked prospect Anthony Volpe has not only remained at the major-league level all season long, but has played in all 103 Yankees games, despite hitting a paltry .210/.284/.376.

    Rodriguez was recalled last week and in two starts since that call-up, he allowed another six runs in 10 2/3 innings (5.06 ERA). Through 12 major-league starts, he had produced inconsistent results, pitching like someone with no major-league experience entering the season. Then the Yankees came to town.

    Rodriguez retired the first 10 batters of the game on Friday night. He produced arguably the most pathetic at-bat of Anthony Rizzo’s career with an effortless three-pitch strikeout in the first inning, and it wasn’t until Aaron Judge walked with one out in the fourth that a Yankee reached base.

    3. Having not played since June 3, Judge returned on Friday and made sure to let everyone know his toe isn’t 100 percent. He jumped on the first pitch he saw and ripped a 104.4-mph line drive to right field that was unfortunately hit right at right fielder (and eventual Orioles hero) Anthony Santander. That would be the only hittable pitch Judge would see all night because from that moment on Rodriguez and the Orioles decided ‘Nope, we’re not going to let the one guy in the Yankees lineup beat us.’ The type of smart, logical decision-making the Yankees refrain from using. It’s how they let Pete Alonso beat them on Tuesday and let Shohei Ohtani beat them in Anaheim and continue to let Rafael Devers humiliate them every time they play the Red Sox. For the rest of the night, the Orioles pitched around Judge and put him on base with three walks in his other three plate appearances.

    The idea Judge was going to come back and elevate the Yankees offense from being one of the worst in the league to one of the best hasn’t been wishful thinking all along by Yankees homers, it’s been idiotic thinking. While Judge is great even with one big toe, the rest of the lineup sucks and just putting him back in it wasn’t going to change that.

    4. It wasn’t going to change because the opposing game plan Yankees fans witnessed last season has returned along with Judge’s return to the lineup: don’t pitch to Judge. It’s not strategic, it’s obvious, like utilizing the center square in Tic-tac-toe if you have the first move. The Orioles aren’t the first team to avoid pitching to Judge, and they won’t be the last, not with Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton serving as his protection.

    Rizzo went 1-for-4 in the game with that pathetic strikeout and a bloop single off the end of his bat, and Stanton went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. When the protection for the best hitter in the league is the equivalent of a pair of weapon-less security guards defending the Hope Diamond, you get the kind of result the Yankees offense provided on Friday: no runs.

    5. No runs and four singles. That’s what the Yankees offense produced in their biggest game of the season to date.

    “These are all big important, a lot-on-the-line games,” Aaron Boone said. “That’s just the nature of the beast at this time of the year.”

    It’s not just “this time of the year,” when games are important, it’s all year. When the Yankees lost out on home-field advantage for the one-game playoff in 2021, it wasn’t because they lost two of three to a Rays team that had nothing to play for in the final three games of the season. They lost it all season, losing to inferior competition by underachieving. And if the Yankees miss out on the playoffs this year by a game or two, it won’t be because of what happened in the final weekend of the season, it will be because of what happened all season: the underachieving, the mismanagement, the blown leads. It will be because of games like Friday night.

    6. Not only was is a struggle to get baserunners, when the Yankees did get them, they erased them with double plays. Harrison Bader (whose time with the Yankees can’t end fast enough) and Stanton both banged into inning-ending double plays in the game. But if you remember what a wise man once said back in June 2021, hitting into double plays isn’t necessarily bad.

    “Typically, the better teams are going to hit into double plays,” Boone said on June 4, 2021 after a loss to the Red Sox. “You know you’re going to be asking me that same question when we get it rolling here.”

    The Yankees never got it rolling in 2021 like Boone tried to manifest. They never got it rolling in the second half of 2022, like he also predicted, and what do you know, the same “get it rolling” line has amounted to nothing in 2023.

    8. In these type of postseason-like games, everyone needs to be at their best: the offense, the defense, the starting pitcher, the bullpen and especially the manager.

    The offense clearly wasn’t at their best. Boone wasn’t at his, choosing to remove Wandy Peralta from the game after a single pitch with switch-hitting Orioles due up in the ninth and a chance to get them to hit to the cavernous left field. And Tommy Kahnle wasn’t at his, throwing only changeups, eight of them in his ninth-inning appearances. When there’s no fastball to differentiate Kahnle’s changeup from, his changeup becomes his fastball, and an 89-mph changeup from Kahnle to Santander immediately following two other changeups was foolish, and it ended the game.

    9. “You cannot waste Gerrit Cole outings when he throws the ball as well as he has,” John Flaherty said on the YES broadcast, forgetting that one thing the Yankees are extremely good at is wasting Cole starts.

    Not even two weeks after losing a Cole start in which he allowed one run and racked up 11 strikeouts in Colorado, the Yankees couldn’t win a game in which he gave them seven shutout innings against the best team in the AL. When you waste Cole starts and you leave yourself open to the unknown that are starts by everyone else in the rotation, you end up in last place, which is where the Yankees remain.

    10. On a night in which the Yankees couldn’t mount a single run, every other team in the AL East won. The Orioles beat the Yankees, the Blue Jays beat the Angels and the Red Sox beat the Giants. The Yankees lost a game on everyone in the AL East and lost a game on the wild-card race, a race they are now 3 1/2 games out of.

    Another game off the schedule. Another loss closer to missing out on the postseason in a format in which 40 percent of the league makes the playoffs. Another loss to a team that is on the right path to annual contention for the foreseeable future from a team that is on the path to dark days of unproductive, old players, bad contracts and basement baseball.

    Subscribe to the Keefe To The City Podcast.

    My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers
    is available as an ebook!