With Judge (21 HRs), 'anything's possible'

June 4th, 2022

NEW YORK -- A white-walled corridor underneath Yankee Stadium’s right-field stands features every retired Yankees number, printed on discs like ones mounted in Monument Park. Before each home game,  passes through on his way to the clubhouse, acknowledging the franchise’s greats of yesteryear.

As he continues this remarkable MVP-caliber campaign, Judge now sees his name listed alongside luminaries like Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. Judge blasted his Major League-leading 21st home run in the Yankees’ 3-0 win over the Tigers on Saturday, remaining on pace toward the club’s most revered power performances.

“It’s an honor, any time you’ve got Yankees legends like that, getting a chance to be mentioned in the same sentence or category,” Judge said. “But I’m not trying to be Maris. I’m not trying to be Ruth. I’m just trying to be the best Aaron Judge I can be.”

Now just the fourth Yankee to belt at least 21 homers through the club’s first 53 games of a season, joining Ruth (who did it in 1921, ’26, ’27, ’28, ’30 and ’32), Mickey Mantle (’56) and Luke Voit (2020), Judge is also ahead of the 1961 pace of Maris and Mantle.

On his way to the Yankees’ single-season record of 61 homers, Maris had 20 homers through 53 games of that magical summer; Mantle had 18. Before Saturday’s game, Aaron Boone was asked if Judge could reach 60 homers, a suggestion that the Yankees manager did not dismiss.

“With him, anything’s possible,” Boone said. “That is obviously an enormous number to get to. We’ve got a long way to go there, but I won’t put a cap on anything he could do.”

For homer No. 21, Judge pounced on a 95.3 mph fastball from Tigers starter Beau Brieske, driving a 378-foot blast to right-center field that marked his first career leadoff homer and his second blast in as many days. No other Major Leaguer has reached 20 homers; the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts entered play on Saturday with 16.

“I’ve been here since 2015 and he came in ’16,” said , who fired seven innings of scoreless, one-hit ball in the win. “It’s been great to see Judgie mature as a baseball player. Every time he steps in the batter’s box, it’s like he’s going to hit a homer or do something good for us. He’s got a great shot this year to repeat what he did in 2017.”

That ’17 season, in which he clubbed 52 homers, ended with Judge’s unanimous selection as the American League’s Rookie of the Year and a second-place finish in the AL MVP race.

This showing might be even better. Judge believes he’s a better player than he was in ’17, citing “a couple-thousand at-bats” of additional experience. If he keeps this historic pace, a season that opened with Judge betting on himself -- turning down a seven-year, $213.5 million extension -- may be a most lucrative gamble.

“He’s an amazing player. He’s a smart player,” Boone said. “The experience that he’s gained throughout his career, he’s able to learn from, grow from and apply. When you couple that with tremendous talent and the makeup of who he is, he’s about the team. He’s about winning. I knew nothing could get in the way of that.”

Judge’s leadoff home run helped to key a Yankees offense that also featured ’s second homer in as many games, a sixth-inning long ball off Brieske.  lifted a sacrifice fly in the eighth.

But as he has been all season, Judge once again served as the ignitor, strapping the club across his broad shoulders. The reigning American League Player of the Month for May, Judge has been “consistently dominant,” in Boone’s view. Where would the Yankees be without him? They hope never to find out.

“I just try to make contact and get on base,” Judge said. “If it goes over the fence, it goes over the fence. If I’m standing on first base with a single, I’m happy with that, too. I keep coming back to it, but I try to keep things simple. It’s good when things work out.”