As Aaron Judge took batting practice on Monday prior to his first career playoff game, Reggie Jackson stood close by and watched.
Judge had a record-breaking rookie year, but, like Mr. October before him, he wants to make his mark when the stakes are the highest.
“Well, that’s what it’s about, postseason baseball,” Judge said. “The regular season, it’s kind of like spring training is over. This is the regular season now. This is what it’s all about. This is where those numbers that are hanging in left field (at Yankee Stadium), this is where they made a name for themselves, in the postseason.
“I’m excited for this opportunity.”
Judge’s 2017 campaign to date has been remarkable. After striking out in 42 of his 84 at-bats at the end of 2016 and hitting .179 with four homers, the 25-year-old right fielder made adjustments in the offseason, and narrowly won a starting job over Aaron Hicks out of spring training.
He then produced a rookie-record 52 homers along with 114 RBI, a 1.049 OPS and an 8.1 FanGraphs WAR. Judge scored 128 runs, drew 127 walks and struck out 208 times. The Bombers wouldn’t have made the playoffs without him, as he moved from the bottom of the batting order to the top.
Along the way, Judge re-defined the Statcast era, blasting balls into orbit at never-before-seen exit velocities and won the Home Run Derby. He will walk away with at least the AL Rookie of the Year award, if not the AL MVP as well if he can get more votes than Houston’s Jose Altuve.
Judge’s season featured its share of ups and downs as well. Going into the All-Star break, he had 30 homers, 66 RBIs and a 1.139 OPS in 84 games. But from July 14-Aug. 31, he had seven homers, 16 RBIs and a .690 OPS in 44 games — likely the product of a nagging left shoulder injury that caused him to just miss pitches he usually belted out of the ballpark.
In September, however, Judge reverted back to superstar form, collecting 15 homers, 32 RBIs and a 1.352 OPS in 27 games, as the Yankees finished with a 91-71 record.
“I think the ups and downs he went through the past couple years has prepared him for this,” Joe Girardi said. “He struggled last year. He made adjustments. He was as hot as could be until the All-Star break. He went through more struggles, came back, and his September might have been his best month. So yes, I do feel really good about him.”
Judge was able to play in 155 games. If it was up to him, he would’ve played in all 162 — injured or not.
“I feel great physically,” Judge said. “I’m playing baseball in October. I always feel good about that. That was one of my main goals this year, because in 2016 my season ended with an oblique injury, and one of my goals was I wanted to be a consistent part of this lineup. I wanted to be in there every day playing for my team through the good times and the bad times. I’m excited that I was able to play 155 games, just be out there with my team in the good times and the bad times.”
No. 99 was asked if there will be any nerves going into the do-or-die AL wild-card game on Tuesday. His guests in Judge’s Chambers will be academic achievers from P.S.-M.S. 89 in the Bronx.
“We’re just going to try to treat it like we have the whole season coming here,” Judge said. “We played well at home. I think once Sevy (Luis Severino) throws the first pitch and we get the game rolling, it will all be the same. I think the buildup before the game is nerve-racking, but once we step out on the field, it’s the same game we’ve been playing since we were little kids.”