Yankees’ Elimination Turns Attention Toward Aaron Judge
Yankees’ Elimination Turns Attention Toward Aaron Judge

New York’s face of the franchise is set to enter free agency after a historic season that lost momentum during the playoffs. What happens next?

NEW YORK — They had chanted M-V-P at him all year, but when Aaron Judge lumbered to the plate in the first minutes of Monday morning, down three games to none in the American League Championship Series, down one run, down to their final out, with the season and perhaps his Yankees career on the line, the fans who remained could barely muster a cheer.

Judge took a big cut for strike one.

“You suck!” came a voice from the crowd, which had started at 46,545—not a sellout—and dwindled along with the Yankees’ chances.

He watched strike two.

“Hit a home run!” someone exhorted.

He watched ball one.

“Come on, Judge!” yelled someone else.

The last pitch of 2022 in the Bronx was a 91-mph slider. Judge bounced it weakly to Astros pitcher Ryan Pressly, who underhanded to first baseman Yuli Gurriel to end Game 4 of the ALCS 6–5 and seal Houston’s second straight trip to the World Series and its fourth in six years.

All year, Judge carried the Yankees atop his broad shoulders. And then, finally, they sagged.

Aaron Judge’s season ended with a feeble groundout to Astros closer Ryan Pressly.

Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports

When it was over, all anyone wanted to know was whether this had been Judge’s final game in pinstripes. He spent nearly seven seasons in New York, evolving from a hacker who hit .179 over 27 games in his 2016 debut into the AL single-season home run king and the likely AL MVP, and, at 30, he is due to become a free agent after the World Series.

APSTEIN: Inside Aaron Judge’s Pursuit of Home Run History

On the eve of the season, he turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million offer from the Yankees. Then he compiled the best year in pinstripes this side of Mickey Mantle. He fell five points of batting average short of the AL Triple Crown this year, settling instead for the major league lead in home runs (62), RBIs (131), runs (133), walks (111), on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686), OPS (1.111), OPS+ (211), total bases (391) and WAR (10.6).

But he hit just .139 this postseason with only two home runs, both in the American League Division Series against the Guardians. All year, as Judge went, so went the Yankees, so this October, when he went badly, they went home.

For the first time this series, the Yankees actually seemed to have a chance in Game 4. They had not led at the end of an inning before Sunday, but they scored two in the first and added a third in the second. That held until starter Nestor Cortes, whose velocity had dropped and who seemed unable to hit his spots, surrendered a three-run home run in the third before exiting with a left groin injury. His replacement, Wandy Peralta, pitching for the seventh time in nine games, allowed another run. Then New York tied it in the fourth and went ahead 5–4 in the sixth on Harrison Bader’s fifth home run of the postseason, matching his regular-season total.

But the Yankees unraveled in the seventh inning. With one out and Jonathan Loáisiga on the mound, Jose Altuve beat out an infield single by millimeters. Jeremy Peña bounced what should have been an inning-ending double-play ball to second baseman Gleyber Torres. He threw wide of shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who did not seem to expect a throw at all. Yordan Álvarez lined the next pitch to right, driving home the tying run. Manager Aaron Boone summoned Clay Holmes; Alex Bregman hit his fifth pitch to nearly the same spot to give the Astros a lead they would not relinquish.

The Yankees have to answer many questions this winter. This series laid bare how far behind the Astros, the class of the American League, they remain. The team will have to decide whether a lineup so old, so righthanded, and with so similar an approach can succeed. But first owner Hal Steinbrenner will have to decide how much money he is willing to offer the gap-toothed face of the franchise.

After the game, Judge addressed his teammates, telling them that they had become like family to him, and that this was a special group. As a handful of his teammates lingered in their uniforms, he showered and dressed in joggers, Nikes, an Amiri fleece hoodie and a white Siegelman Stable hat.

In many ways, he has become the platonic ideal of a Yankee over his time in New York, and one of those ways is his Jeterian ability to offer only the blandest of answers. He declined to ponder what might come next for him. At times he spoke as if he would remain in pinstripes: “I think when we finally get there and secure this thing, it’ll definitely make it a lot sweeter going through tough times like this, that’s for sure,” he said. But at other moments he seemed to be eulogizing his years here: “It was a special time,” he said. “I just kick myself for not bringing home that championship for them.”

Aaron Judge was 1-for-16 with a single, a walk and four strikeouts during the ALCS.

Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

He flashed his dimpled smile as he insisted that it had not occurred to him that Sunday might mark his last home game at Yankee Stadium.

“Not at all,” he said. “I tried to go out there and do my job and help my team win and I really didn’t think of it.”

And afterward? ”It happened so quick,” he said. “You really don’t have time to soak much in.”

His teammates had time. Ace Gerrit Cole said he planned to spend the winter recruiting Judge to return. Catcher Kyle Higashioka said Judge is his role model. “I’m older [than he is],” Higashioka said. “But he’s the kind of player that I think everybody should strive to be.” First baseman Anthony Rizzo stumped for the team to give Judge whatever he wants, then bestow the captain title on him. (Indeed, his teammates called him that all year; Judge generally smiled and scoffed.)

“The money he’s brought to this organization, this franchise, to the game of baseball—I’m sure just the money alone in September, chasing 62, was enough to easily pay him,” Rizzo said. “There’s plenty of money in this game to be spread around. I think for him whatever he gets is gonna be astronomical and he deserves it. I think that he bet on himself on the biggest stage in the biggest market and did it with ease and should be rewarded as the highest-paid player in the game. He’s the new gold standard, in my opinion. And it’s all about market timing for the most part and what better time to go out and hit 62 home runs. He hit over .300, played—how he’s not a Gold Glove finalist is beyond me—amazing defense, stole bases when he needed to, gets on, walks more. It’s just he’s the total package.” He added, “I think he single-handedly won us at least 40 games this year. So minus 40 games off our record and that’s what we’d be this year.”

They won 99 games, so if Rizzo’s math is correct, the Yankees would have been a last-place club without Judge. Judge would say the result is the same. Every year since 2017, the Yankees have been ousted from the playoffs before the World Series. (Three times it has been the Astros doing the ousting.) And every year, Judge has insisted that the season was a failure. He said the same thing early Monday morning.

“If we’re not the last team standing, it doesn’t matter what you do, what happens, it’s a failure,” he said. “We came up short. We didn’t finish our goal.”

Then he stepped away from the backdrop and headed toward his locker, shaking hands with more than a dozen reporters along the way. He hugged teammates and clubhouse guys. He smiled. And he left. 

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