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Yankees’ Aaron Judge has to compete against himself

Yankees' Aaron Judge (99) throws the ball during

Yankees' Aaron Judge (99) throws the ball during a baseball workout in Toronto, Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Credit: AP / Nathan Denette

TORONTO -- On the eve of Opening Day, Aaron Judge stood at his locker, speaking with reporters while fidgeting with his hat. As Judge answered each question, he tugged at the cap, pulling it between his hands as if he were stretching pizza dough.

When asked if this year would feel different from last season’s opener at Tropicana Field, a brand-new experience for the rookie, Judge cited the obvious first-time jitters. He also mentioned how some parts of the game never change, at least for him.

“I’m still nervous,” Judge said, smiling. “I’m nervous right now.”

He later corrected himself, describing it more as “excitement,” perhaps not wanting to come off as too tense for the start of his sophomore season. But Judge is only human. And none of the Yankees, not even new manager Aaron Boone, are saddled with such a daunting assignment for 2018.

Over the next 162 games, Aaron Judge has to be Aaron Judge all over again. Just the thought of repeating last season must feel exhausting. The way he burst onto the scene, blasting tape-measure home runs, redefining the concept of exit velocity, winning the Home Run Derby in Giancarlo Stanton’s backyard. The commissioner suggesting Judge as the new face of baseball.

And for all the greatness, there was the dizzying, midseason nose dive, followed by the 15-homer rebound during the final month, launching him, front and center, into the Yankees’ first ALCS run since 2012. The same clubhouse Judge stood in Wednesday, prepping for Opening Day, was the one he partied in with teammates after clinching the wild-card berth at Rogers Centre, minus the plastic-wrapped lockers and champagne-drenched carpet.

Can all that happen again? Can Judge possibly hope to slug 50-plus homers again? Can he reprise his role as being larger than the game? To do something magnificent once is special. But history is crowded with one-hit wonders. For Judge to repeat what he did last season would mean something all together different.

He’s got to realize that. But perhaps the best way to duplicate those feats, or even come close, is to pretend like they never happened.

“Last year’s over,” Judge said. “You can’t take it with you.”

That’s not entirely true. While the calendar has flipped, 2017 still follows Judge around. It did this winter, continued throughout spring training, and will be glued to him this season as well, regardless of how he performs. Every question posed to Judge is against that backdrop and he has to act, for his own sanity, that it’s a blank slate behind him.

Seeing how Judge has piloted his meteoric rise to this point provides a reason to believe that he can pull it off. Not only was he able to keep everything in perspective during his incredible first half a year ago, but Judge displayed equal poise while suffering through his crushing post-break slide — and what we would later discover was a bothersome shoulder injury that contributed to it.

“If anyone is equipped to handle all that comes with being a superstar player for the Yankees,” Boone said, “Aaron is capable of that.”

But if Judge needs a little help, the Yankees’ trade for Giancarlo Stanton also supplied him with a big-brother figure that’s faced similar challenges, if on a somewhat smaller stage down in Miami. Stanton is entering his ninth season after winning the National League MVP and knows the struggle of living up to the hype, over and over again, as well as wearing the target of a $325-million contract, the richest in pro sports. When Stanton sizes up what’s in front of Judge this season, he’s speaking from experience.

“Don’t try to compare numbers or compare where you were at this point last year,” Stanton said. “Just trust yourself, trust your preparation and know you’re going to do well. If you have the mental strength to have a season like he did last year, then it shouldn’t be too difficult. But at the same time, a guy like that wants to be the best and pull the best out of himself.”

To Stanton, it’s about creating that “happy medium,” and Judge certainly found that zone last season. Now it starts again, and Judge insists nothing is different for him, 52 homers later.

“You’ve still got to prove yourself,” Judge said.

For this year, he’s made being Aaron Judge harder than it’s ever been.

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