Last Sept. 28 at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, Aaron Hicks opened the visitor’s seventh with a single and scored moments later when Judge hit homer No. 61 off the cement facing in left field, above the Blue Jays bullpen where the cherished ball landed.
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Judge took another six games to break that record with No. 62 on the penultimate day of the regular season.
The Yanks are back at Rogers Centre on Thursday night—the scene of those heroics—in a strange and amazing coincidence.
“Oh, no way. Good timing, good timing,” Judge told Sportico in a wide-ranging interview last Thursday in the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. “I’ve really haven’t been able to sit back and reflect on it. Before you know it, you’re in the postseason and then you’re past October getting ready for the next season. Plus, I was a free agent, and I was in the middle of all that.”
A lot has happened since then, most of it not quite as positive for Judge or his Yankees, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Judge took two months to sign that free-agent contract—a nine-year deal worth $360 million—which should keep him in pinstripes for the rest of his career. With that, he was named the team’s captain, the first since Hall of Famer Derek Jeter.
By then, the offseason was almost over, with spring training in Tampa already pending. First came a long-postponed trip with his wife, Samantha, to Hawaii. Judge said even then he didn’t spend any time on the beach pondering his personal accomplishments; he had already relived that with family and friends.
Instead, his mind raced to how the team could take the next step to the World Series for the first time since 2009 after being swept by the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series last season. He takes his new-found captaincy very seriously.
“It was an adrenaline rush thinking about all the work we had to do here in New York,” he said. “We had a lot of expectations, a lot of plans. There was no sitting back enjoying it. It was more on to the next. I don’t think I’ll be able to reflect on all that [record-breaking season] until, nine, 10 years down the road.”
This season didn’t start off poorly for the Yankees. They were 10 games over .500 on June 3, when Judge jammed his right foot making a catch while crashing into a gate in right field at Dodger Stadium. The injury turned out to be a torn ligament in his right big toe.
He didn’t return until July 28, and by then, the Yankees’ season was heading south in both the American League East and Wild Card races.
“I take responsibility for that,” Judge said. “When they brought me back to New York my responsibility was to be the big guy in the middle of the order who produces runs, being out there and playing right field every single day. When an injury like that happens it’s tough. I was pretty upset. I want to be out there for the guys. It puts a big hit on the rest of the team when one of your main pieces is gone.”
As other key players like Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rizzo were lost to injury, Judge returned and continued to pound the baseball at his 2022 pace. The numbers speak for themselves. Through Wednesday night’s game in Toronto, he had 37 homers and 75 RBIs in 357 at-bats. On Friday night, he became the first Yankee in club history to slam three homers in a game twice during the same season. Only Lou Gehrig has hit four in a game.
He’s certainly capable of breaking his own record.
“He’s a 70-homer threat,” Yankees star right-hander Gerrit Cole said. “Even with the 62 he hit last year he missed 10 to 12 others because of the wind and park considerations. He should have hit more than 62.”
Last year, Judge hit his 62 homers in 570 at-bats. Going into Thursday night’s return to Toronto, he will have missed 57 of the club’s first 158 games. It doesn’t take an analytic genius to determine that those missed games had a major impact on Judge’s personal stats and his club’s season.
“You take the best player in the world out of your lineup for a couple of months, especially with some of the struggles we’ve had offensively, and this is what happens,” Yanks manager Aaron Boone said. “We didn’t pick up the slack well enough when he was out. He came back, and he wasn’t 100%. He’s handled it very well.”
The Yankees have hovered around .500 since Sept. 1. They were eliminated from playoff contention with a 7-1 loss to the D-backs this past Sunday, but haven’t had a losing season since 1992—and even that’s in jeopardy. After that game, Judge told the media this season was “a failure.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of internal talks, a lot of stuff we’ve got to get figured out,” Judge said, slipping into his role as captain.
Back to the big night a year ago in Toronto: Judge had hit No. 60 on Sept. 20 at Yankee Stadium against Pittsburgh. It would be his last homer at home during the regular season. Through the next five nights at Yankee Stadium waiting for him to tie Maris, the big crowds stood in silence when he came to the plate, waiting in rapt attention.
“It was eerie,” Judge recalled.
They traveled to Toronto, where he didn’t homer during the first two games of that three-game series, either. The Yankees by then had assured first place and a bye in the Wild Card round. It was now all about Judge, a situation with which he’s never comfortable.
He came to the plate in the seventh inning with the scored tied 3-3 in a game the Yanks won, 8-3. Hicks, now going to the playoffs with the Baltimore Orioles, was on first. The win, Judge said, was all he cared about.
“I just tried to block all that out because I knew I had a job to do on the field,” he said. “When I finally hit the homer, I was excited because it gave us a big couple of runs in that game. I was just relieved to put one in play in that situation. Hicksy was on first base. He’s always been one of my guys. It was just cool to cross home plate and share that moment.”
A year later, that’s still Judge.
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