NEW YORK – Call it the shot heard round the Yankees Twitterverse.
In his first at-bat back in New York's intrasquad lineup, after missing close to an entire week with stiffness in his neck, Aaron Judge launched a booming solo home run to straight away center field on Wednesday.
Judge's first big fly of Yankees' Summer Camp couldn't have come at a better time.
With the clock ticking closer to New York's regular season opener on July 23, concerns regarding Judge's health were once again mounting. Remember, the slugger didn't make a single appearance in Grapefruit League play earlier this spring due to a stress fracture in his first right rib dating back to last fall.
It took months to diagnose Judge's cracked rib, stemming from discomfort in his right pectoral muscle and right shoulder. Could stiffness in his neck be another precursor to an additional serious injury?
Hours after clobbering the fastball off James Paxton, Judge confirmed he had put the stiff neck behind him, saying if something like this had popped up during the regular season, he and the club's training staff would've made sure he was able to play.
"No issues, no nothing," he said. "Still not 100 percent, but good enough to play so I was out there just to get some at-bats and see how it felt. We’re all good."
Just to get some at-bats.
As simple a statement those six words may be, it's the kind of sentence Yankees fans feared they wouldn't hear leading up to Opening Day.
Read through the replies on the Yankees' social media posts with video and photos of the solo home run. Judge is called "fragile," users ask if he pulled any muscles jogging around the bases and fans request the star is placed in protective bubble wrap ahead of Opening Day to make sure nothing else goes wrong.
Considering how injuries have hampered the 6-foot-7 slugger's ability to stay on the field over the last two seasons – failing to play more than 112 games since his spectacular rookie campaign in 2017 – anything close to a clean bill of health is a breath of fresh air.
Looking back, Judge assured the issue in his neck was never anything to worry about. He joked that the source of the stiffness that kept him off the field for a few days was nothing more than him waking up on the wrong side of the bed.
It's what his manager has been saying all along. This won't be a long-term issue for No. 99.
"I’m not really too worried about it.," Judge said. "You break a wrist, you break a bone in your ribs from diving trying to make a play for your pitcher, get hit in the wrist by a pitch, it’s just freak things. I’m going to keep playing this game hard, that’s all I know."
For a slugger with plenty of power, you'd think getting a hold of one in an intrasquad game would have Judge ecstatic, overjoyed about his progress to get back into the box, doing damage with a bat in his hands. After all, Judge hadn't hit a home run in an in-game appearance since Game 2 of the American League Championship Series on October 13 last fall. That's eight months ago.
Instead, Judge singled out and broke down the quality at-bat he had against Paxton later in the game, explaining that working a walk resonated with him more than the long ball.
"Getting down 3-2, that’s where it gets tough with a guy like that," Judge said. "He can hit every corner of the plate, every part of the strike zone, every single pitch is a wipe out pitch so for me to get a walk there, that was probably my favorite at-bat of the night."
Although Judge downgraded the importance of his bomb on Wednesday evening, it's a culmination of the progress he had made this past week. In a sense, Judge was able to emphatically flush (or at least temporarily quell) any worries about his physical status with one swing. He had moved on from an issue in his neck that sparked panic among the Yankees' fan base on social media that wound up as nothing more than tightness limiting his range of motion.
"I was confident that especially the way he was progressing each day that he would get to this point," manager Aaron Boone said. "But yeah, it’s always nice to see the big fella go out the front door."
Mike Tauchman wasn't surprised when Judge went deep, as the outfielder vying for his own taste of playing time expects Judge to have his "normal impact" at the plate this year. Instead, he took the time to single out Judge's defense a few days later.
"He doesn't get enough credit for his defense out there," Tauchman said. "With the times we've been starting our games, in right field you're basically just staring right into the sun. There was a ball that he went back on that I can pretty much guarantee was in the sun and he made it look pretty easy but it was not an easy play."
More at-bats came the following afternoon for Judge, as the slugger continued to work on his timing against live pitching. After a few times up to the plate, Judge deposited another ball into the seats, this time off right-hander Jonathan Holder to the opposite field.
After the ringing sound off his bat once again echoed across a barren Yankee Stadium, Judge barely even glanced back to see where the ball landed. He walked toward his spot adjacent to the Yankees' dugout, already preparing for his next at-bat.
There may be more injuries down the line for a mammoth ballplayer that plays the game hard. Perhaps more "freak" injuries, as he called it, are coming down the pike as well. For the time being, however, Judge's swing on Wednesday solidified his return to the Bombers' high-powered lineup with the Yankees' opener just days away.
With any injury concerns behind him for now, New York's slugger can focus on the task at hand, something he proved he's already begun to do. Judge is getting set to embark on a 60-game sprint where the Yankees are one of the favorites to win a title.
His manager believes Aaron Judge will do plenty of damage this season if he can stay healthy. Those aforementioned replies on Twitter say the same.
"We’re going to try and squeeze as much as we can out of [this week] and try to get the reps in that we can," Judge said. "I think we’re ready. I’m ready."
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