Shohei Ohtani is back to being the biggest star in baseball, because of the way he can hit and hit for power and the way he can pitch. Everybody heard the love he got at the All-Star Game in Seattle on Tuesday night, to the point where you were surprised when Ohtani didn’t get a standing ovation for striking out the first time he came to the plate.
But he’s not any more important to the Angels than Aaron Judge -- who was an even bigger star last season on his way to hitting 62 home runs -- is to the Yankees.
There isn’t a player anywhere more important to his team than Judge is, not even an all-around wonder named Ronald Acuña Jr. As great as Acuna is, you can still see how loaded the Braves’ lineup is around him. Without Judge over the past six weeks, the Yankees have become a different kind of load, the kind you have to drag up a hill.
It is why, as the second half of the season officially begins for Judge’s team with him still recovering from a torn ligament in his right big toe, the elephant not in the room for the Yankees is No. 99.
The Yankees still have a great chance to make a run at the Rays and the Orioles -- the two teams ahead of them in the American League East -- when Judge is back in their lineup, whenever he is in their lineup again. But we have seen over the past six weeks that they have no realistic chance to win the division without him, even with the way the Rays have come falling back to earth lately.
The night Judge got hurt in Dodger Stadium, actually running through the outfield wall to make another spectacular catch, the Yankees were 35-25, six games behind the Rays. Since then, the Yankees have gone 14-17. They now have the second-lowest batting average in baseball at .231, ahead of only the Athletics (.221). The only lower on-base percentages than the Yankees’ .300 belong to the A’s, Royals and White Sox (.299).
Without Judge in the lineup, and even though Giancarlo Stanton hit some home runs going into the All-Star break -- one of them an epic shot off the facing of the third deck in left field at Yankee Stadium -- the team lead in home runs after Judge’s 19 is 13. One of the guys with 13 happens to be rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe.
With all that and without Judge, the Yankees have lost exactly one game to the Rays in the loss column since the night Judge got hurt. So that is the good news for the Yankees starting the second half. The bad news for Yankees fans is that their team is also just a game ahead of the Red Sox, which means a game out of last place in the East. It is why, at least for now, new hitting coach Sean Casey is being treated like some kind of temporary savior -- at least until Judge is back in the lineup.
And even when Judge does return, there is the suggestion that he might need to spend more time DH-ing for the Yankees -- which will mean more outfield time for Stanton, who can hit balls as far as Judge when he runs into a fat pitch, but can’t catch them in either right or left nearly as well.
It is still a fact that the Yankees haven’t fallen out of things without Judge. They have now gotten Carlos Rodón -- their big free-agent acquisition of the last offseason -- back, and Rodón will get the ball on Friday night in Denver. The Yankees are hopeful that Nestor Cortes, who has been on the 60-day IL with a shoulder strain, might be ready to return in August. Even with the way Luis Severino has been hit lately, the Yankees’ pitching -- which featured a perfect game from Domingo German -- has held up. They just haven’t hit without Judge, which is how they’ve ended up 28th out of 30 teams in team batting average.
In comparison, the Red Sox as a team are hitting 33 points higher at this point of the season. Everybody knows it wouldn’t be like this if the Yankees still had Judge. But they still don’t have Judge, the way the All-Star Game didn’t have him on Tuesday night. Here’s part of the statement Judge released in explaining that to the fans:
“I plan to take this time to heal and rehab so I can get back on the field for my team and all of you. Again, I can’t thank the fans of MLB enough -- you are all a huge part of what makes this game so great.”
So does he.
The Trade Deadline is fast approaching in baseball. This year the Yankees hope their big play is just getting the big guy back. Baseball misses No. 99. Not nearly as much as the Yankees do.