Opinion

Baseball lore demands October triumph, and Aaron Judge has gone to work

 

Yankees’ outfielder Aaron Judge has broken the all-time record for most strikeouts in a postseason before the World Series. The number is currently 22, for those keeping track at home. To be blunt, several of his October at-bats have looked hideous. Instead of taking breaking balls low and away, he’s swung over them. Instead of putting the barrel on fastballs inside the strike zone, he’s blinked and watched them pass by. On occasion, Judge has been crossed up, perhaps even a little fazed, as if his late summer slump never left. But the 25-year-old rookie has confoundingly swept any and all of his blunders under the carpet. And it didn’t take very long either.

Less than 24 hours after hitting a monumental three-run home run which propelled the Yankees to an 8-1 win over the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium, Judge’s heroics were on display once again Tuesday night in Game 4. His seventh inning solo-shot and game-tying two-run double in the eighth helped power New York to a 6-4 comeback victory, knotting the series at 2-2, with Game 5 scheduled for Wednesday night in The Bronx.

For now, brush aside the MVP conversation. That doesn’t matter, nor does Judge’s 52 regular season homers. To be remembered in this sport, a player must take the stage in October, and face the white hot spotlight, as New Yorker Billy Joel says. These games are memory makers. These are the ones that count the most. Regardless of how special a six-month campaign truly can be, there’s no way to compare it to the grandeur of postseason baseball. No way to compare it to the feats accomplished in the cool, crisp autumn setting.

Despite that Judge has played in 165 total games this season, this Game 4 at the Stadium stands out among the rest. To be a legend in a city or across the nation, performances like this one are somewhat vital. It’s a tall order for any player, but the stars who do fulfill these tasks eventually emerge as icons, and that’s when legend and lore are born again.

And even for Judge, who seemed to hit every ball in his path in 20 of 26 weeks, his potential to be clutch was still uncertain. Shockingly enough, Judge hit just .219 (21-of-96) in high leverage situations this year, and .215 (17-of-79)  in late and close games, which are plate appearances in the seventh inning or later. So, despite the strikeouts, despite the base running gaffes, he’s finally hit when it matters the most.

“We’re never out of a game with the offense we have,” Judge told FOX’s Ken Rosenthal. “We just kept trying to have quality at-bats. I was just trying to get on base for my team, get something going. I was able to put up one run right there, and that inning we got two runs. And once you’re in striking distance like that, anything can happen.

“I’ve been feeling good since day one. I’m just happy to put a good swing on a good slider and get the job done. I’ve got a lot of faith in this team. They’ve got a good squad over there, but I’ve got faith in our guys. We’ve been battling through a lot this year, and we’re going to keep fighting.”

The old adage of having timely hitting in the playoffs will never vanish. Momentum and hitting sprees all start with one swing, and Joe Girardi knew that Judge’s monster blast off of Astros’ starter Lance McCullers ignited the Yankee Classic-esque rally.

“I thought Aaron’s home run kind of lit a little spark. We’ve seen that before,” the Yankees’ manager told reporters after the game. “We saw it in a game early in the season. I think we were down 9-1 to Baltimore and it kind of lit a little spark and I thought it did it again today. I think I’m probably caught up in it just like everybody else, anticipating that he’s going to do something great, because we’ve seen it so many times this year.” 

Like any Little Leaguer, Judge has played out these iconic moments… just in his head, of course.

“It’s pretty sureal, to be honest. I haven’t really reflected on tonight’s game yet. But as a kid, I’ve been in that situation in my head a thousand times,” Judge said after the game. “Through the minor leagues, all your daily batting practice, your cage work, I’ve put myself in that situation. Game’s on the line, big-time situation, go out there and get the job done. So I’ve been in that situation a thousand times. But the dream’s not the same as the reality. Being out there with that crowd and that atmosphere was unbelievable.”

And that’s what makes a memorable player memorable: The ability to embrace dream-like situations that are all too real.

22 strikeouts, by the way, for those still keeping track at home. Doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?

 

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