The nickname for Aaron Judge is still All Rise, even if he spent too much of the past three seasons before this one sitting down because of injuries. But now, back from some recent time on the COVID-19 injured list, it is Judge who is really back, and the Yankees are rising up around him, in what looks like a brand new season for all of them.
There are a lot of reasons why the Yanks, who are set for a doubleheader against the Red Sox in the Bronx on Tuesday, keep winning series. But there is no bigger reason than the big man in right field, who is playing like a star again.
It has been a while. Judge isn’t going to hit more than 50 home runs the way he did in 2017, when he helped carry the Yankees all the way to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. That was when Judge looked like as big a baseball star as we had, and not just because he’s built like a power forward. But he missed 50 games the next season because of injuries and 60 games the following year. Then, he played less than half of the Yankees’ games in the short season of 2020.
After hitting 52 home runs in the ’17 season he hit a total of 54 in the next two seasons. You started to wonder if he would ever stay on the field for a full season again, and you would even wonder what the Yankees were going to do about him when he became a free agent in a year if he couldn’t stay on the field.
Now, we are being reminded all over again of what Judge looks like when he manages to do that. And what the Yankees look like. He has missed some games this season, too, because of COVID-19 and lower-body issues. But he has been out there for 103 out of the 117 games the Yankees have played going into Monday’s game against the Angels in the Bronx, and you know the Yanks would have signed up for that leaving Spring Training. Twice.
And when the country was focused on the Field of Dreams Game in Iowa on Thursday night, it was Judge who would have been the star of that game with two home runs in the cornfield, one in the ninth inning, if Tim Anderson didn’t have one more swing in him in the bottom of the ninth.
When the two teams got to Chicago to complete their three-game series, Judge hit another home run, went 3-for-4, scored two runs and knocked in four. In his last eight games, Judge has hit .375 (12-for-32) with four homers, 12 RBIs and six runs scored, while slugging .844. He absolutely is rising and so are the Yankees, even with their issues trying to find a reliable closer right now.
Coming out of the weekend, Judge has upped his numbers to 26 home runs for the season, with 63 RBIs, a .283 batting average and a .902 OPS. There have been other home run hitters to talk about this season. One of them, the amazing Shohei Ohtani, will be at Yankee Stadium on Monday night. And then there has been Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis, Jr. You know the list is longer than that. Judge isn’t going to win any home run titles this season. But he and his teammates are focused on a different title right now, the one in the AL East, where the Yankees are suddenly just 2 1/2 games behind the second-place Red Sox (one game in the loss column) and 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Rays, with more than a quarter of the season still to be played.
“We’re a confident team,” Judge said the other day in Chicago. “We never feel like we’re out of any game. It’s tough fighting back, but there’s no panic in this team. There’s no one hanging their heads. You’ve got to pull us off that field.”
And even with the tear that he has been on, Judge said something else in Chicago that might be slightly concerning to the other teams as he and the Yankees try to make their run in the AL East:
“I’m still searching,” Judge said. “But hopefully one of these games, we’ll get it locked in. I got out today, so one of these days I’ll be perfect.”
Everybody knows Judge’s injury history, how Yankee fans still expect to hear between one game and the next that Judge has been scratched again. But if he makes it through the next couple of weeks, he will have played the most regular season games he’s played since he played 112 in 2018. Judge has more help around him in the Yankees’ batting order than he’s ever had before, now that New York has added Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo (who hit two homers for the Yanks on Saturday night) and with Luke Voit, who hit more home runs than anybody in the Majors in 2020.
But it’s Judge who needs to be the Yankees’ best player, and who needs to be their star. He has been one lately. Lot of heaven talk in Iowa the other night. Judge hitting this way again is pretty heavenly for the New York Yankees.