NEW YORK — Aaron Judge has picked up right where he left off last October — and the October before that. No. 99 is once again rising to the occasion like so many stars that came before him in The Bronx.
Judge entered the 2019 postseason with so much confidence, sounding more and more like a leader. He spoke openly and easily, wanting to carry these New York Yankees to greater heights, to that mountain top the 2017 and 2018 teams were unable to reach.
“Each year, it left a bad taste in my mouth,” Judge said of the first two eliminations of his career. Those opponents, the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, both went on to win the World Series.
“But for a lot of the guys,” Judge said, “that keeps us hungry.”
Judge, of course, had done his part in those series. Three homers and a 1.065 OPS in seven games against Houston. And two homers and a 1.194 OPS in four games against Boston. But in the end, the Yankees went home early both times, left to watch the Astros and Red Sox collect their championship rings Judge now covets.
“Any year you’re not the last man standing, the season is a failure,” he said.
The 27-year-old right fielder is determined to script a different ending this time around. And so far, he’s off to quite a start.
In the first two games of the American League Division Series, Judge has been a force, reaching base in seven of his 10 plate appearances as the Yankees have jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Minnesota Twins.
“All I’m thinking about is all the missed opportunities from years past, and I don’t want that to happen again this year,” Judge said after going 2-for-3 with two walks and a run scored in New York’s 8-2 victory in Game 2 on Saturday night.
“I’m going to continue to do whatever I can,” Judge said. “Whether that’s taking my walks when I can or driving in guys in when I can, I’m just going to do whatever I can until we’re done playing. We’re hungry. And you guys are seeing it.”
Judge also made a pair of diving catches in Game 1 — balky shoulder be damned. He’s always been willing to put his 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame on the line for the good of the team. And his patient approach in the batter’s box epitomizes the Yankees’ mantra of controlling the strike zone.
To date, the Twins haven’t given him much to do damage with. So Judge has been content to either poke a single the other way or watch four balls and take his base.
“Really good players normally respond to the moment, and he’s no different,” Yankees reliever Zack Britton said. “He’s a big catalyst for our team obviously, and you want him up there in big spots.”
This season alone, Judge fought through an oblique injury that cost him 54 games, then withstood a significant slump to return to All-Star form at the perfect time. After striking out four times against the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 15, he managed to hit 14 homers and post a 1.075 OPS over the final 33 games of the regular season.
That success has only continued now that the tournament has begun.
“He’s so good out there,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of Judge after Game 1. “Obviously, two great plays where he lays out for balls. You see the other things he does so well just fundamentally sound, just getting behind balls to get himself into position to make throws. And then on the offensive side, every at-bat he had tonight he was all over everything.”
Game 2 was more of the same.
“It’s a constant progress, constant work, constant grind with me,” Judge said of his work at the plate, a turnaround he suggests is more mechanical than physical. “Working on stuff in the cage. I never get satisfied. I’m always tinkering with things. Usually, my stance and everything has been the same. It’s just about approach, trying to do more damage on certain pitches. Even though I try to walk a lot or try to get on base, I’ve been trying to just go up there and do damage on each and every single pitch, especially with the type of lineup we have.”
The Yankees are now one win away from a likely rematch with the Astros, a chance to try and conquer the two-man juggernaut that is Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. But as Judge reminded everyone, they still have to take care of business in Minnesota before they can move on.
“We have to stay focused,” Judge said. “That’s it.”
With Aaron Judge motivated by failures of the past, you can count on him doing just that.
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