Judge 'playing a little smarter' to stay on field

Team leader: 'Every year, I put my heart and soul into this game'

February 23rd, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. -- spun at the crack of the bat, peering through red-tinted sunglasses over his left shoulder and tracking the flight of a baseball into his outstretched glove. New season, same routine, same expectations.

Once again, Judge’s season began with sleepy batting-practice fly balls lifted above the George M. Steinbrenner Field diamond. The slugger vows that 2021 is the year that he will help the Yankees author a different ending, one that features the presentation of a championship trophy.

“Getting kicked out in the [American League] Division Series is not what our goal is,” Judge said on Tuesday. “It’s not what we intended. … It starts in the regular season, keeping guys on the field, playing hard and winning our division. I think if we can do that and take care of business there, it sets us up for the postseason where anything can happen.”

Judge understands that his health is a vital part of that equation. Judge seemed to be off to an MVP Award-caliber start last year, belting nine homers in 16 games, but he only played in 28 due to a right calf strain that he reaggravated on his first day back from the injured list. Judge has played in 242 of a possible 384 regular-season games since the beginning of the 2018 season, a 63 percent rate that he considers unacceptable.

“Over the years, you learn to work a little smarter, not harder,” Judge said. “If I get a better first read, a better first step, that might help me not to have to crash into a wall. With my big body, 275 [pounds] diving over 162 games, it does a lot of wear and tear. It comes back to just playing a little bit smarter.”

Like teammate Giancarlo Stanton, Judge has been working with performance coach Eric Cressey to improve his training regimen, accepting a suggestion to reduce heavy weightlifting in favor of yoga and other exercises intended to strengthen explosive movements. Judge believes that the new program, combined with a healthier offseason than his winter of 2019-20, will produce an impactful ’21 season.

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“Last year I thought I was coming in healthy, but I played a whole [2019] postseason and worked out all offseason with a broken rib and a punctured lung,” Judge said. “I’m excited to come in feeling great. Being 6’7” and 275 [pounds] is a little different than 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds. We’ve got to do things a little bit different.”

Judge grinned when it was mentioned that his comment would inevitably be relayed to Gardner, who is officially listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds.

“I think I can speak for the whole clubhouse and organization that we’re happy to have him back in pinstripes where he belongs,” Judge said. “He’s important, not only to me but the young guys we have on this team. He finds a way to impact the game.”

The last remaining link to the Bombers’ most recent World Series team (2009), Gardner is widely regarded as a clubhouse leader who -- if in the mood -- could spin yarns about that charmed October and November. Trips down memory lane are fun, but Judge intends to live his own championship story firsthand.

“Every year, I put my heart and soul into this game,” Judge said. “That’s why every year it hurts when we lose. I feel like I let the city down; I feel like I let my teammates down. Those cuts are deep; I’ve got scars all over me of past losses and past experiences. All it’s doing is making me stronger. It’s going to make it sweeter in the end.”