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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

After past playoff disappointments, Yankees' Aaron Judge can take next step toward becoming a club icon with title run this October

Yankees' Aaron Judge (99) gets a fist bump

Yankees' Aaron Judge (99) gets a fist bump after the Yankees defeated the Cleveland Indians 12-3 in Game 1 of an American League wild-card baseball series, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland.  Credit: AP/David Dermer

The Derek Jeter comparisons sprung up early for Aaron Judge. Homegrown Yankee. All-Star. Respected teammate. Captain material.

But to become a true Bronx icon — anywhere approaching Jeter’s level — will require some additional work this October, and many Octobers beyond that. Judge certainly understands the responsibilities that come with this gig.

Not that he’s into being connected with the newly minted Hall of Famer (and CEO of the suddenly amazing Marlins). I bring up Jeter only because Judge’s reverence for the playoffs, and his hunger for success on that stage, immediately reminds you of the guy with the five World Series rings.

On the eve of this Division Series with the Rays, I asked Judge about how much the Yankees’ past failures are part of his 2020 pursuit, what role they play in his yet-unfulfilled drive to win a title.

Judge is 0-for-3 in his first three seasons, including two painful ALCS losses to the Astros, so his Octobers are far different from Jeter’s instant success brought on by the 1996-2000 dynasty.

You’d think in a sport that requires short memory, turning the page on those playoff defeats might be the more healthy approach. Not for Judge. He’d rather those wounds didn’t heal.

"I think about it every day, to be honest," he said Sunday. "It’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever let go of until we get a chance to win a championship. That’s just part of something that fuels me. I hate losing, so any time I think about all the past years, getting kicked out of the playoffs, the next one stings as much as the one before. It just kind of builds.

"That’s what motivated me to continue to work hard and to help this team be in a better position so we can eventually bring that championship home to New York. Before every game, I always think about hard times, good times. Think about, hey, the job’s not finished. We still got a long way to go."

This year, it didn’t seem automatic that Judge would be back to his intimidating self for the postseason. After an MVP-caliber start, he missed nearly five weeks with a nagging calf strain, and the performance after his Sept. 16 return didn’t inspire confidence: 10 games, 43 plate appearances, one extra-base hit, zero home runs. Hitting .194 (7-for-36) down the stretch was not encouraging, particularly in games that still had meaning to the Yankees, who let any shot at home-field advantage dissolve quicker than a sand castle at high tide.

Judge just needed the time. Call it an abbreviated rehab stint. Because the moment he stepped to the plate in Cleveland, against presumptive Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber, it took one pitch for the power to return. Judge’s two-run homer gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead they never surrendered in the Game 1 blowout. They completed the sweep the following night.

Judge instantly looked dangerous again, and so did the previously slumping Yankees.

"For me, the regular season is kind of like spring training," Judge said. "The real season is the playoffs. If you want to see a team show up, it’s the team that shows up in the postseason, and that’s what we’re going to see."

Judge’s tone-setting homer was his ninth in 29 playoff games, to go with 19 RBIs and an .894 OPS. Manager Aaron Boone would suggest that merely installing Judge back in the No. 2 spot, between DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks, helps set off a chain reaction throughout the lineup. Or even just having him around the clubhouse again come October.

"I’ve felt that ever since coming in here a few years ago, there’s just a presence that he has," Boone said. "I’ve talked about an edge that he plays the game with, obviously between the lines. But there’s a palpable feeling amongst our club when he’s in the dugout and there’s no doubt in my mind he does like playing the more that’s on the line, the bigger these games are.

"I think that’s one of the things that motivates him. The reason he’s playing is he wants to be a champion, and we’re in that time of the year."

On Sunday, Judge described these Yankees as being "special" again now that they’re back at full strength. He cited the bats sparking to life during the Cleveland sweep as an example of the team rediscovering its identity as a World Series favorite. Judge also repeatedly mentioned the Rays as the No. 1 seed, an old Jeter trick, sort of a wink at the concept.

"Pressure is a privilege," Judge said. "This team has continued to embrace every single moment and enjoy every single moment because we’ve earned this opportunity."

Opportunities are great. But titles make better memories.

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