NEW YORK -- If you closed your eyes and listened to the words being spoken Thursday afternoon, you’d think it was Derek Jeter talking about the Yankees’ mindset as they approach another postseason.
“Any year you're not the last man standing, the season is a failure.”
Only it wasn’t Jeter sitting at the podium in the Yankee Stadium interview room, but rather Aaron Judge, the current face of the Yankees.
The names may change, but the mission remains the same.
Judge and the Yankees will open their quest for the 28th championship in franchise history with a familiar opponent in the American League Division Series: the Minnesota Twins.
This marks the sixth postseason meeting between the two clubs since 2003, the most recent coming in the 2017 American League Wild Card Game, an 8-4 New York victory. The Twins have never gotten past the Yankees in the postseason, and if Judge and his fellow slugger, Giancarlo Stanton, have anything to say about it, that trend will continue in the coming days.
“You can win every single game in the regular season,” Judge said. “But if you lose in the postseason, it doesn't matter.”
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Judge experienced the highs and lows of October during his first two full seasons in the Majors. His Yankees came within one victory of the World Series two years ago, then fell in the ALDS last year against the rival Red Sox. That four-game Boston series was Stanton’s first true postseason test -- he made his playoff debut in the Wild Card Game victory over Oakland -- and it ended poorly.
Stanton went 4-for-18 (.222) with no extra-base hits or RBIs in the series, sparking plenty of sports talk radio debate about his ability to thrive under the bright lights of October. Judge recalled the differences he felt between his first and second postseason experiences, giving him the hope and belief that Stanton will be a key factor for the Yankees in the days and weeks ahead.
“It's just like taking a test,” Judge said. “First year is like a practice test, where you go through the motions, your first time into it. … After you get a couple games in, get that feeling of what the postseason is about, you settle down a little bit. You're able to slow the game back down, and I think that's what Giancarlo is going to do.”
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Stanton’s history suggests his bat can be a difference-maker for the Yankees, but his 2019 was marred by injuries, costing him all but 18 games. He performed well in his limited action, slashing .288/.403/.492 with three home runs and 13 RBIs, but it remains to be seen whether he can be the offensive force the Yankees envisioned when they traded for him two winters ago.
“That was terrible for me,” Stanton said of his two extended stints on the injured list, “so I just used it as, ‘This is what I built it for; this is what I'm doing all this for,’ and just visualize what I can do.
“The tougher the day, the more repetitive the day seemed, it was all looking forward to this. So now we're here.”
Finally healthy for what feels like the first time all season, Stanton used the final weekend of the regular season in Texas to tune up his swing and his timing, getting himself right for his most important at-bats of the year.
It would be easy for Stanton to view October as an opportunity to change the narrative that has hovered over him like a black cloud. A few big weeks would surely erase the frustrations he -- and the Yankees’ fan base -- have felt during the six months prior. Only he’s not looking at it in those terms.
“That's over,” Stanton said of the regular season. “That's over for everyone. We won the division. The season's over. In a sense, everyone can't look back anymore. It's all one day at a time, one play at a time -- and it starts tomorrow.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone wrote out only 14 lineup cards featuring both Judge and Stanton this season, but they’ll both be in there for Game 1 against Twins right-hander Jose Berrios.
“Even when a pitcher makes it through the lineup a time or two, as long as we're routinely making it difficult, I feel like eventually that serves us well,” Boone said. “With Giancarlo and the guys we think we're getting back here for Game 1, I feel like our lineup has that ability to be long and to be able to wear you down just with the at-bat quality. So that's something I'm looking forward to seeing.”
“This is the best time to all be back,” Stanton said. “We all know what we can do individually in parts of the season. So now we're all together, and we’ve just got to bring that big force and make sure we take care of it.”
The Yankees’ “next man up” mantra this season has prepared them for this moment -- and it has nothing to do with losing another player to injury.
“You can kind of translate it to, if I go up there in a big situation and I don't get the job done, I know I've got the guy behind me that's going to step up and fill that hole and fill that role,” Judge said. “So I think the next man up mentality is still going to play for us in the postseason.”
Judge considers failure to be his biggest motivator, so while he’ll surely recall the feeling of winning a pair of Wild Card Games and coming back from an 0-2 deficit against the Indians in the 2017 ALDS, it’s the bitter taste left by the Game 7 loss to the Astros in the 2017 American League Championship Series and last fall’s quick exit against the Red Sox that has stuck with him.
That, and the electricity he and his teammates will feel when they step on the field Friday night.
“Man, I feel like some of the ghosts from Yankees past are here with us whenever that stadium gets rockin',” Judge said, again sounding an awful lot like the Yankees’ most recent captain. “I can't wait.”
Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.