Aaron Judge never played for the George Steinbrenner-run Yankees, but the rightfielder channeled The Boss, who died in 2010, perfectly on Thursday.
“Any year you're not the last man standing, the season is a fail,” said Judge, who was picked by the Yankees in the first round of the 2013 draft.
Friday night's Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Twins at the Stadium was the start of Judge's third postseason. The first two ended in disappointment. The Yankees were eliminated in seven games in the 2017 ALCS – losing twice in Houston after taking a three-games-to-two lead – and watched the Red Sox celebrate an ALDS victory at Yankee Stadium after a Game 4 victory clinched the best-of-five series.
Both the Astros and Red Sox went on to win the World Series after downing the Yankees, who enter this postseason without a championship since 2009.
For Judge, the fact that the Yankees went 103-59 this season and won their first AL East title since 2012 despite placing a record 30 players on the injured list means very little.
“It doesn't matter how many games you win in the regular season,” Judge said, again unintentionally doing his best Boss impersonation. “You can win every single game in the regular season, but if you lose in the postseason, it doesn't matter. Each year, it left a bad taste in my mouth, especially Game 7 in Houston, Game 4 here at home [last season], losing on our home turf to our AL East rivals, never a good taste going into the offseason. But for a lot of guys, that keeps us hungry.”
Speaking before Game 1 Friday, Aaron Boone didn’t go quite as far as Judge but didn’t object to one of his clubhouse leaders speaking in such absolute terms about how to define a given season as a success or failure.
“I know what we're focused on. I know what we long for and what we hunger for,” Boone said. “ So how people characterize things in the end is how they do. But we're chasing the championship. That's the goal. We know it's going to be grueling, tough, hard, if we're to get there. But that's our singular focus.”
Judge hasn’t been hung up on those past postseason setbacks, but he has thought about them plenty, especially last season’s ALDS.
“My biggest motivator and biggest lessons I've learned is always from failure,” said Judge, who went 6-for-16 with two homers, two walks and two strikeouts in the four games vs. Boston. “Failing -- I just think back to a lot of those games in '18, the little things. The little things we missed out on, the little details we missed that might not have affected a certain play now but affected us later in the game or affected something later on.”
Judge said some of those lessons learned were brought into this season and talked about when the team reported in February for spring training.
“That's what this team in 2019 has capitalized on is doing the little things,” he said. “Doing the little things right each and every day. On defense, running the bases, in the box, controlling the zone — that's something that Boonie always talks about, controlling the zone. I feel like when you do the little things, you're going to be the championship team or be the better team. Failure is … that's a tough pill to swallow, but it can always be one of your biggest motivators.”
Judge, who hit .272 with 27 homers and a .921 OPS in 102 games (he missed 54 games with a left oblique strain), has for the most part delivered on the big stage. Coming into Friday, he had 11 extra-base hits, including seven homers, with a .994 OPS in 18 postseason games.
“This is the regular season,” Judge said. “They can say that 162 is the regular season, but that's spring training. This is when it counts. This is when it all counts. This is when it matters. The first one to 11. So it’s going to be some fun.”