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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees must hope Bronx gives Aaron Judge a jolt

After the Yankees lost a pair of 2-1 decisions in Houston, the ALCS shifts to Yankee Stadium where CC Sabathia, 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA this season, will pitch against the Astros' Charlie Morton. On Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, the team talked about not panicking over being in an 0-2 hole in the best-of-seven series, while Astros manager A.J. Hinch said he is not going to underestimate the Yankees' ability to bounce back. Credit: MLB

The House That Ruth Built is long gone. But the Yankee Stadium that now stands across 161st Street, its foundation laid by Derek Jeter, has become a shrine to Aaron Judge, complete with his own rightfield cheering section (The Judge’s Chambers) and the gavel-smacking “All Rise!” that bellows for each of his at-bats.

If there is a comfort zone for Judge, it is here. And as the Yankees prepare to dig themselves out of another 0-2 hole, starting with Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros on Monday night, they also must hope the Bronx can trigger something in the misfiring Judge, who has been a significantly more dangerous hitter at home this year.

During the regular season, Judge batted .312 with 33 home runs, 68 RBIs and a 1.165 OPS during his 77 games in the Bronx. In 78 road games, those numbers dipped to .256, 19, 46 and .935, respectively.

Obviously, Yankee Stadium is a hitter-friendly park, with the ridiculously short porch in right. But it’s not as if Judge needs the help. If you check the spray charts, he had enough distance on most of his home runs to clear any fence, in any stadium. And while he does have power to all fields, he hasn’t been sneaking cheap shots inside the foul poles. When Judge hits them, they go. Period.

It could be a situation in which Judge, as a 25-year-old rookie, feels more secure in the Bronx. Maybe the opposing pitchers are more on edge, given the threatening nature of their surroundings. They also might make more mistakes to him. For anyone who has been in the building when those “M-V-P!” chants start booming for Judge, there can be an adrenaline boost as well.

Perhaps it’s a combination of all these factors, and the Yankees will be calling on that mojo to revive Judge, because Joe Girardi has shown no intention of making any drastic moves with his lineup card. Judge has remained anchored in the No. 2 spot during these playoffs after batting .327 with a 1.291 OPS there in 28 regular-season games, but the production has disappeared since he went 2-for-4 with a homer and three runs scored in the Oct. 3 wild-card victory over the Twins. Since that night in the Bronx, Judge is 2-for-27 (.074) with zero homers, two RBIs, one run scored, five walks and 19 strikeouts in seven games.

Despite having Judge in a freefall, Girardi is staying the course, as he did during his August slump. But the manager doesn’t have the luxury of time here. The Yankees are two losses away from winter vacation, and if Judge doesn’t wake up Monday, it will be more difficult to avoid that fate. But Girardi doesn’t have any other options, aside from crossing his fingers for both Judge and the struggling Gary Sanchez.

“I think they’re seeing a lot of good pitching,” Girardi said. “They’re making pitches on these kids. And maybe are they trying a little bit too hard? Yeah, of course. But I think everyone out there is probably trying a little bit too hard.”

Some credit goes to the advance scouting done before the postseason. Teams go to school on each other in the weeks leading up to October, trying to find whatever edge they can. Indians manager Terry Francona made a telling statement before the Division Series when he divulged that his staff “had spent a lot of time” analyzing Judge on the eve of Game 1. Judge had one hit (an RBI double) and whiffed 16 times.

That futility has continued against the Astros. When Judge makes contact, it’s now considered a small victory. But as Girardi mentioned, he’s also faced two former Cy Young Award winners in Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, at the height of their powers. The Yankees scored a total of two runs in the first two losses, so this isn’t entirely Judge’s fault.

“It’s a team game,” Judge said. “All 25 of us are pulling on the same rope. That’s what this team is made of and what this team is about.”

But the Yankees were unquestionably Judge’s team in 2017, just as the Stadium treated him with favorite-son status all season long. Starting Monday night, Judge needs to be that intimidating slugger again, drawing on that Bronx inspiration, before it’s too late.

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