The first two games of the New York Yankees’ American League Division Series may be a small sample size, but the Aaron Judge experience has been a tad different since the end of his record-setting 62-homer regular season.
Judge opened 0-for-8 against the Cleveland Guardians with a walk and seven strikeouts, including whiffs in his first four plate appearances in Friday’s Game 2, 4-2, 10-inning loss at Yankee Stadium.
The best-of-five series is tied at a game apiece, with the next two at Cleveland’s Progressive Field on Saturday and Sunday. A Game 5, if necessary, will be back in New York Monday.
The speculation about Judge is running rampant, although it will hardly affect the money he will be offered this coming offseason in the free-agent market.
As the division winner of the AL East, the Yanks earned a bye in the first round of the playoffs and sat for five days until the ALDS began with a 4-1, Game 1 win Tuesday night.
A rainout meant another off day Thursday.
Judge hadn’t played since he broke Roger Maris’ AL and Yankees record of 61 homers in the nightcap of a day-night doubleheader against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on Oct. 4.
He homered in the first inning, struck out in the second and was removed from the game by Yanks manager Aaron Boone. In the season finale the next day, Boone opted for Judge to rest, despite his protestations.
“I was fighting Skip about that last game,” Judge said the other day in an interview session. “I kind of wanted to get in there, but he said, ‘No, take the day.’ I really just needed that one day and I was ready to go right after that.”
Instead, he wound up sitting a week and playing two games in 10 days.
The previous 12 games from hitting homers 60 to 62 were chocked with pressure. Fans standing on a every pitch. It would only be natural for there to be a letdown even as the historic home run chase ended, and the postseason began.
Judge said after Friday’s game that was not the case. He’s simply “swinging at pitches that I can’t hit,” he offered.
“It comes down to timing. My timing is a little off,” he added. “There’s nothing I can do. I have to play better. I didn’t do the job, especially as the leadoff hitter. I’ve got to get on base. I have to make something happen on the base paths.”
The Guardians have thus far pitched the right-hander slugger very tough, with a combination of fastballs and off-speed pitches on the outer regions of the plate. Veteran Cleveland manager Terry Francona wasn’t divulging any strategy.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but if I did [have a strategy], I’m not sure I’d really want to share it. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said.
A letdown after a great run to pass Maris?
“That’s probably the last thing I thought about,” Francona said. “He looks dangerous to me.”
It should be noted right here that when Maris broke the record in 1961 he struggled during the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds after outdistancing Mickey Mantle to break Babe Ruth’s then all-time single season record of 60 during the 161st and final game of that season. Mantle was injured the final weeks of that season and finished with 54.
Maris batted .105 (2-for-19) with a homer and two RBIs as the Yanks defeated the Reds in five games. The homer won Game 3 of that series, 3-2, in the top of the ninth inning at Cincinnati’s old Crosley Field.
Thus, with a possible three games to go vs. Cleveland, Judge has plenty of time for some more heroics.
“It’s baseball. You’re up against the best,” Boone said about Judge. “Great hitters fail more often than they succeed, even when they’re rolling. They neutralized him here the first two days, pitched him really tough. But he’ll get back on the horse and be as dangerous as they come tomorrow night.”
Maris won the World Series and the AL MVP Awards in both 1960 and 1961. Finishing his seventh season, all with the Yanks, Judge has yet to do either.
His tussle with two-way super Shohei Ohtani in the AL MVP vote is still ahead, although two members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in each AL city have already registered their vote. That announcement won’t come until November.
The Yanks haven’t won the World Series since 2009 and have not even been back there since then inclusive of Judge’s tenure. They’ve been to the playoffs the last seven years, but have not made it past the AL Championship Series. Last year, they lost a Wild Card Game in Boston.
Judge said the thing he remembers most about those losses is the silence afterward in the clubhouse. That was what he told his teammates as they sat there quietly after the loss at Fenway Park
“It was like, ‘Hey, guys, don’t forget this feeling,’” he said.
And he doesn’t minimize his own responsibility.
“I feel responsibility not only for this team but to the city to go out there and bring something home,” he added.
Right now, he’s on that oh-for. And for what might be his last time playing for the Yankees, Judge has three games left to prove it.