NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees are in the home stretch of their strange and possibly surprising 2016 season, a season that might very well end up with them playing at least one game of postseason baseball despite holding a fire sale at the trade deadline.
Even though it did not move them any closer to the second AL wild-card spot (because the Baltimore Orioles, the team they are chasing, won too) their 5-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday was vital because, well, virtually every game is vital from here on out.
They got a gutsy performance from a subpar Masahiro Tanaka, key hits from Jacoby Ellsbury and Tyler Austin, and just enough relief pitching, including Dellin Betances' ninth save of the season, to keep hope alive for another day at least.
All is well in Yankeeland for the time being -- with the exception of one area, right field, where the struggles of Aaron Judge threaten to sabotage whatever faint hopes the Yankees still harbor of playing beyond Oct. 2.
In fairness, the rookie right-fielder made two excellent defensive plays on Monday. He saved a run with a diving catch of Devon Travis' sinking liner in the second, and saved an extra-base hit and possible game-tying home run, on Dioner Navarro's fly ball to the right-field wall in the seventh, which the 6-foot-8 Judge picked like low-hanging fruit.
At the plate, however, it is a different story. Judge homered in his first two big league games, but since then has been ventilating Yankee Stadium and ballparks around the nation with his big, and usually futile, swing. He is striking out at a rate that would embarrass Rob Deer and threatens to topple Reggie Jackson off his perch as baseball's all-time strikeout king, if Judge were somehow able to stick around long enough.
But if Judge has a few more games like his past past eight, him sticking around seems like a pretty remote possibility.
Judge struck out in all three of his at-bats on Monday, two of them with the built-in excuse of having faced knuckleballer R.A. Dickey for the first time.
But there is no need to put qualifiers on these numbers: Judge has now struck out at least twice in each of his past eight games and in 13 of the 20 big league games he has played. He has struck out more times than any player in baseball since he was called up from Triple-A on Aug. 13. He has now struck out 35 times in 65 at-bats, which equates to 54 percent (Wil Myers of the Padres is second during that time span with 33 in 75 at-bats). Judge's batting average is down to .169 and his OPS to .585, by far the worst of any regular in the Yankees lineup. And worst of all, on every at-bat right now, he is a whiff waiting to happen. He has struck out in nine of his past 12 at-bats.
And this poses a dilemma to manager Joe Girardi, who has maintained all along that while allowing his young players to develop is one of his goals for the remaining games of the 2016 season, winning as many of those games and making the postseason is priority No. 1.
In that case, he will soon need to make a decision: Allow Judge to fight through his struggles on the field for the Yankees, or sit him down and give his team the absolute best chance to win. Remember, this was a key point in Girardi's decision not to play Alex Rodriguez in the final week of his Yankees career. If it was the right call then with A-Rod, it stands to reason it might be the right call now with Judge.
However, it does not appear that Girardi is ready to make that call.
"He's going through a tough time and mechanically, I think he's a little bit off," Girardi said. "We're trying to get him back on track. We got to help him get through it, that's all. We got to help him fight through it. We know he has the ability, and we believe he can do it."
In fairness to Girardi, his options are limited, and became more so when Aaron Hicks, who had been hitting better lately, was unexpectedly placed on the 15-day disabled list during the game with a right hamstring strain suffered Wednesday in Kansas City. That leaves the manager with: another rookie, Rob Refsnyder, who was just recalled on Sept. 1; Austin, who hasn't played much outfield at all the past two seasons in the minors; and journeyman Eric Young Jr., who hadn't played in the majors at all this season until Girardi sent him in for defense Friday night in Baltimore.
In terms of upside, Judge certainly has it over any of them, although Austin's bat is heating up after a miserable stretch. Following the euphoria of a home run in his first big league at-bat on Aug. 13, Austin had five hits in his next 33 at-bats, and his average fell to .130. He had two doubles on Sunday, the second of which drove in the winning run, and is now hitting .205.
Right now, the Yankees would love to just match that level of production from Judge.
"I think he's handling it pretty well so far," Girardi said.
And he is. Judge has been startlingly, almost eerily upbeat throughout this stretch, smiling through the repetitive series of questions that follow each game and maintaining that none of this is bothering him.
"It's part of the game," he said. "Everybody goes through this."
Judge then ran through the standard series of baseball clichés -- gotta keep working, gotta have a short memory, gotta stay patient -- but truthfully, the Yankees can't afford to have unlimited patience with him, until they are mathematically eliminated from the playoff hunt.
Girardi had his own prescription for what is ailing Judge: "I think some of it can be controlling your emotions. Being able to relax in the box, not trying to do too much. Those aren't necessarily things I see him doing, but it's always hard to tell what's going through a person's mind. Trying to slow the game down, looking for your pitch, remaining patient. Those are the things you want to see him able to do. As long as he remains patient, I believe he's going to hit. But as soon as he gets overaggressive, then you start to worry a little bit."
There are 26 games left in the regular season and still some significant ground to be made up if the Yankees want to be playing beyond that.
In most cases, patience is a virtue. In this case, it might turn out to be a vice.