Yankees' Aaron Judge provides yet another big moment, setting the tone in Opening Day win

Mar 30, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe (11) celebrates with center fielder Aaron Judge (99) after defeating the San Francisco Giants at Yankee Stadium.
Mar 30, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe (11) celebrates with center fielder Aaron Judge (99) after defeating the San Francisco Giants at Yankee Stadium. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

An inning or so after Aaron Judge had homered on his first swing Thursday after, well, all the seismic stuff that happened this past winter, his manager went up to him in the dugout and asked with a dash of kidding snark: “Really?”

We know what you mean, Aaron Boone. What happened in the first inning almost defies belief: Judge homered against the team that tried to woo him last winter with a mammoth offer, one almost tempting enough to get him to spurn the Yankees in free agency.

But Judge ended up back in pinstripes for a cool $360 million over nine years. Then, at the same press conference that deal was announced, the Yanks named him the 16th captain in franchise history. All this after an historic season in which Judge smashed 62 home runs, conquering the hallowed American League record of 61 held by former Yankee Roger Maris.

Got all that?

No wonder it was such a moment Thursday when Judge took a strike and then went deep. And to do it in a 5-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants in front of a sellout crowd on Opening Day stamped the swing as an early Yankee highlight. Think it’ll be included on the commemorative video, if the Yanks make something of this season? You bet.

“It was awesome, just everything about it,” said Anthony Volpe, the 21-year-old wunderkind who made his debut as the Yanks’ shortstop. “The way he was welcomed by fans, coming back, announcing his presence like that. It was super cool.”

But Judge wasn’t the only notable from the first game of the Yankees’ 121st season and that speaks well of the Yanks, even as they try to cope with their recent rash of injuries.

On Thursday, Anthony Volpe was a standout, in large part for the warm reception he got. Yankee Stadium is already in love and showered the rookie with cheers at every turn, including when he kissed his jersey as part of his response to the famed roll call from fans. Volpe was 0-for-2 with a walk and his first career stolen base and looked the part both at the plate and at short.

“I almost felt he was chasing 62 the way the crowd was for his first at-bat there,” Judge joked.

Gerrit Cole threw six shutout innings and set a record for strikeouts by a Yankee on Opening Day – 11 – even though it was a chilly day where he sometimes had trouble with grip, and Gleyber Torres homered, too.

If things go like this most of the year – hey, we’re getting carried away by the sizzle of a near-perfect Opening Day – then maybe the Yanks can do something real. It all started with retaining Judge, which is what Judge says he wanted all along, even if the Giants were a natural for a Northern California guy.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” Judge said of staying in the Bronx. “I was pretty vocal about that. I’m happy I'm here. It’s tough to think about being anywhere else.”

“He’s the central figure within this organization now,” Boone said. Still, Boone acknowledged that he had some uncomfortable winter hours while he fretted over the possibility of Judge leaving.

Now perhaps Judge can attack history again. It sure is fun to think about. Only Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have hit 60-plus homers in consecutive seasons. Even if Judge got to 50 homers, that would give him three seasons of 50-plus – only McGwire, Sosa and Babe Ruth have hit 50-or-more four times.

If you’re looking for reasons to believe, Judge started the season homering off a difficult pitcher. San Francisco starter Logan Webb only allowed 0.515 home runs per nine innings last season, second-fewest in the National League. Webb’s sinker-change combo can be tough for hitters to elevate, as Boone noted, and the manager praised “the craft” of Judge hitting a delivery from that pitcher 422 feet.

“Wow,” Boone said when asked about the homer. “That’s about as tough a guy you’re going to do it against, right on right. Webb’s going to keep you in the ballpark. To get a ball up like that, hit it out on a cold day, dead center, is a difficult chore itself.

“To set the tone for us like that, especially after the offseason, him signing back, the captain – for him to get us rolling was very fitting.”

Judge was not overly interested in delving into deep meanings for this particular home run, though he acknowledged that he soaked up a little atmosphere after crossing the plate and seeing family members in the stands, plus his delighted teammates. He seemed to prefer talking about how nice it was to “see 11 back on the field” – Volpe wore jersey No. 11, which was last worn by Brett Gardner.

“Gardy meant a lot to this team,” Judge said.

Judge is the Yankees leader now and big days and big moments like we saw Thursday further cement that. Really.