BALTIMORE – If not for the unprecedented season of Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, the American League MVP race might very well might have come down to the top two players from two teams in a neck-and-neck battle for an AL wild-card spot.
The Yankees’ Aaron Judge and the Blue Jays’ Vlad Guerrero Jr.
As it turns out, the pair likely will fight it out down the stretch to see who finishes second and third, respectively.
Of course, for both players, leading their team into the postseason is priority No. 1 and both are more than doing their share of the heavy lifting.
In the case of the 29-year-old Judge, he is far away having his best year since 2017 when he hit .284 with 52 homers and a 1.049 OPS, which allowed him to unanimously capture Rookie of the Year honors (and finish second behind the Astros’ Jose Altuve in MVP voting).
Even as he battles the mysterious dizziness that cropped up over the weekend against the Mets, forcing him from Sunday night’s game at Citi Field, Judge nonetheless keeps producing.
The rightfielder saved the Yankees from what would have been an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Twins Monday afternoon, hitting a game-tying three-run homer in the eighth inning off Alex Colome of what would be a 6-5 victory in 10 innings.
"That’s the guy you want up there," Aaron Boone said. "Colome is tough, but he’s able to get a pitch [that] looked like up and kind of hit a no-doubter there to right-center. Just a really good at-bat in that spot. Got what he was looking for and didn’t miss it."
That, and Gary Sanchez’s game-winning hit in the 10th, allowed the Yankees to improve to hard-to-fathom 139-38 against the Twins since 2002, including the postseason, and pull into this three-game series against the Orioles, which began Tuesday night at Camden Yards with ace Gerrit Cole on the mound, percentage points ahead of the Red Sox for the second position (and one game behind Toronto) in tightly bunched AL wild-card race.
Judge, after going 1-for-3 Monday, came into Tuesday hitting .293 with 33 homers and a .918 OPS.
He was in the lineup Tuesday night, making it 131 of a possible 145 games played, his most games since the 155 he appeared in in 2017, which is something Judge, in an interview by his locker in spring training 2020 (shortly before clubhouses were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic) discussed – the importance, especially as a team leader – of taking the field every day.
The conversation was spurred because of the various injuries befalling the 6-7, 282-pound Judge after his breakout rookie season.
Judge was limited to 112 games in 2018, 102 games in 2019 and 28 games in last year’s COVID-19-shortened season.
"You’ve got to be out there if you’re going to be the leader of a team and a force in a lineup," Judge said in spring training this year. "Some of those things, like getting hit in the wrist (in 2018), that’s stuff you can’t really do anything about. Then (in 2019), pulling an oblique, that makes it tough. But my stance is still the same on that — if you’re going to be a leader on a team, you have to be out there every day."
Of the dizziness that kept him out for the last half of Sunday night’s game, Judge said he wasn’t "100%, but I’m not too concerned about it."
"It just kind of came out of nowhere," he continued. "I’ve gotten my bell rung around a couple times in football. It’s kind of what it felt like . . . We checked all that, all the vitals, everything was good. So we really don’t know what it is. But I’m just thankful to be feeling better."
A lot better, certainly, then opposing team pitchers have felt against him.