As the Yankees prepared for Thursday night’s do-or-die Game 4 of this Division Series, few on the roster felt the weight of the moment more than Aaron Judge.
Judge opened these playoffs with a tone-setting home run off Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, hammering the first pitch thrown to him, and seemingly erased any lingering concerns over his lengthy rehab for a nagging calf strain.
Fast forward to this week, however, and the Yankees’ two-game slide to the brink of elimination by the Rays was tied directly to Judge’s untimely disappearance at the plate. As Giancarlo Stanton swatted Statcast-busting home runs at a record pace, Judge has struggled, hitting .130 (3-for-23) with a pair of homers and nine strikeouts.
He wasn’t the primary reason why the Yankees had dropped two straight — pitchers not named Gerrit Cole had combined for a 7.26 ERA over the first five postseason games. But they desperately needed Judge’s help to climb off the mat.
"It's a pressure-filled situation, and we knew going into the postseason there's going be a lot of pressure situations and big moments," Judge said after Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss. "But that's what we live for. We've earned the right to get this opportunity, to battle down to the end, so we're gonna continue to do that."
Knowing Judge, he probably didn’t sleep all that great after Game 3, especially thinking about his bases-loaded opportunity against Rays starter Charlie Morton in the third inning. Judge jumped on a first-pitch curveball, on the outer half of the plate, but only got it deep enough to rightfield for a sacrifice fly that tied the score at 1.
Productive, sure. But Judge was visibly frustrated with his inability to do more damage, and his two-out single in the seventh turned out to be harmless. The Rays had the second-best ERA in the American League during the regular season, making every trip to the plate a battle, and the spotty strike zone hasn’t helped. The evidence of Judge falling victim to the low "strikes" due to his massive 6-7 frame are well-documented. But he’s also been missing the crushable pitches, and that’s the space Judge has to exploit when the Rays’ staff makes a rare mistake.
"They’ve been working the corners pretty well," Judge said. "And the ones that do get over the plate, it’s just being a little out in front, a little off the end, a little something here and there. But the thing is, you just got to keep swinging. That’s the only way to change the tide — continue to keep swinging, keep having good at-bats, keep battling was keep passing the baton."
Heading into Game 4, the Yankees overall were functioning pretty well offensively in these playoffs. Their 40 runs through the first five games were the second-most in postseason history, behind only the 47 scored by the 1999 Red Sox. The Yankees’ 14 home runs, including six by Stanton, surpassed the 2015 Cubs (12) for the most during the same period.
On the flip side, the Yankees struck out a record 18 times in Tuesday’s Game 2 loss — despite getting Judge to the plate as the go-ahead run in the ninth — and then didn’t create much traffic Wednesday, going 1-for-3 with runners in scoring position. For Game 4, manager Aaron Boone moved Stanton into the cleanup spot, dropped Luke Voit to fifth and elevated Brett Gardner to sixth.
Voit, like Judge, has fallen off during the postseason, and he’s clearly bothered by a foot problem that’s hobbled him for weeks. But both have the elite power to make an instant impact, and based on their recent downturn, maybe they were due to create some fireworks with the Rays turning to a bullpen start for Game 4.
"I think when we're going well, no matter who we're facing, I feel like we're the best offense in the game," Boone said Thursday afternoon.
Judge is usually a reliable indicator of that. Like Game 1 of the wild-card series, when he dented Bieber in the first inning and the Yankees went on to hit three more homers in a 12-3 rout. It’s almost as if the rest of the lineup takes their cues from Judge, or rides his early momentum. He knows that. And with Judge already carrying baggage packed with three years of playoff disappointment, he didn’t expect to be adding a fourth, especially if it was a Division Series exit.
"Win or go home — those are the games I like to play in," Judge said. "That's what you live for as an athlete, as a player, and we’ve got a squad that's ready to do that. We knew it wasn't going to be easy. But this is what we’re made for."
For Judge, it’s looked a little bit harder.