Aaron Judge sets sights on MLB playoffs, quest for World Series after hitting home run No. 62

ARLINGTON, Texas — The wife, parents and relatives all left town.

The bottle of Dom Perignon, presents, and gift bags sitting in front of his locker were all put away.

The horde of local TV stations, camera crews and fans that flocked to Globe Life Field the past two days, stayed home.

And Aaron Judge, for the first time in 56 games, going back to Aug. 4, had a day off Wednesday, sitting out of the Yankees’ starting lineup in their meaningless season finale against the Texas Rangers.

So how was it?

“Terrible,’’ Judge said as he packed his bags for the trip back to New York. “I didn’t know what to do with myself sitting on the bench.

“It’s been a while since I had an off-day. It was a little weird.’’

While the fans started chanting in the ninth inning, "We want Judge! We want Judge!" with Yankees manager Aaron Boone pretending not to hear them, Judge felt a tinge of guilt.

It had been two months since his last day off, and weeks of intense pressure and anxiety with the baseball world watching every at-bat as he tried to break Roger Maris’ record, but still, Judge felt awkward not being on the field or stepping to the plate.

“That’s what I’m paid to do,’’ he said. “I’ve got to be out there.’’

Judge says he still hasn’t permitted the magnitude of setting the American League single-season home run record with his 62nd on Tuesday night sink in. He still can’t fathom that President Joe Biden and former president Jimmy Carter reached out, and half-expected former President George Bush — a diehard baseball fan who once owned the Texas Rangers — to walk through the door. He heard from actors and actresses, musicians, athletes in other sports, and his own peers, all wanting to congratulate him for reaching one of baseball’s greatest milestones.

“I still can’t believe it,’’ Judge says. “That meant so much to me.’’

It was a moment he’ll forever cherish.

Now, he wants to make it a season he never forgets.

The Yankees, 99-63, once again will be a force in the postseason. They aren’t favored to win the World Series. That’s the Los Angeles Dodgers. They aren’t even favored in the American League. That’s the Houston Astros.

Yet, after a sensational three months, followed by a turbulent stretch that threatened to wreck all of their dreams, here they are, trying to finally win the World Series title that has eluded them since 2009.

“It’s an exciting time of the year,’’ Judge says. “This is what we’re looking forward to. We got the regular season out of the way. This is the fun part of the year.’’

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Aaron Judge was not in the lineup for the Yankees' regular-season finale against the Rangers.
Aaron Judge was not in the lineup for the Yankees' regular-season finale against the Rangers.

This is a team that won 44 of its first 60 games, threatening to break the record of 116 victories in a season, only to struggle. The Yankees' 15½-game lead in July melted to 3½ games. They were nearly knocked out in August, going 10-18 — the second-worst record in baseball that month behind only the Detroit Tigers. They cleared their head, regained their footing, and won 20 of 27 games down the stretch, winning the AL East by seven games over the Toronto Blue Jays.

“You can’t have the good without the bad,’’ Judge says. “You got to have a couple of bumpy roads in there, that kind of test to what’s this team made of. Are we going to crumble, and fall, and kind of feel sorry for ourselves? Or are we going to pick ourselves up and battle through these tough times when nothing is really going our way, and come back better on the back end? That’s what this team did.

“Everyone in this room could have been kind of sulking in their sorrows, but everyone kept showing up every single day, even though it was a grind for a lot of guys.

“All it does it make you stronger, man.’’

The adversity, the pennant stretch, the home run chase, the Yankees say, will only make them stronger for the postseason.

“Every good team is going to have two bumpy stretches throughout the season,” said Judge, the heavy favorite to win the AL MVP award, leading the league in homers (62), RBI (131), total bases (391), on-base percentage (.425) and slugging percentage (.686). “That’s what [former teammate Carlos] Beltran told me early on, even when I was a rookie, 'Don’t get caught up if you have a good April or bad April. You are who you are.' If we had started off slow in April, we’d still be in this position.

“It’s a tenacious group in here. Nobody gets fazed.’’

The Yankees, who will play the winner of the Cleveland Guardians-Tampa Bay Rays wild-card series, say their five-game break is needed. It will allow time for players like infielders DJ LeMahieu and Matt Carpenter to get healthy. It will give them more opportunity to identify the relievers they want in key situations. And yes, for perhaps one last time, reflect on Judge’s historic season.

“What Aaron has done certainly shoots to the top of the list,’’ Boone says, “to witness the season he just put out there. We’ll be talking about it forever, when we’re all long gone. That’s how special of an individual season it’s been."

Now, it will be the calm before the storm when anything less than a World Series title is considered a failure.

“We’re proud to be in this position,’’ Boone says. “We're proud to win the American League East. This is a bear of a division every year. So to survive that, to go through the highs of the first half where we raced out, to really hitting a roadblock in about a six-week stretch, we persevered through that and finished the season like we needed to.

“Now, we give ourselves a shot to go chase our dream of winning a championship.’’

Judge helped the Yankees get there with his historic season, but it will truly be celebrated if they’re all riding together on World Series parade floats.

“You don’t know when these opportunities come along again,’’ says Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who won the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs, “so you have to take advantage of it. The more fun we have, the better off we’ll be.

“We win, we’ll have a lot of fun.’’

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Aaron Judge focuses on World Series championship after record home run