We were in the press box at The Trop on Opening Day of last season -- Red Sox against the Rays. Chris Sale, who had been in the park with his uncle when it opened 20 years before, had pitched six innings of one-hit ball, but Boston's bullpen had blown the game in the eighth inning.
But that wasn’t the story of Opening Day 2018 as much as what had already happened earlier in Toronto. The Yankees had beaten the Blue Jays, 6-1, and Giancarlo Stanton -- the new guy who had hit 59 home runs for the Marlins the year before -- had hit two on this day.
At the time, all of us were thinking the exact same thing: There was no telling how many he and Aaron Judge -- who had hit 52 long balls for the Yankees in 2017 -- were going to hit. In the history of baseball, only once had there been two guys on the same team with 50-homer seasons already in the books: Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
You know what Mantle and Maris did in 1961, as they both chased what was then Babe Ruth’s all-time single-season record of 60 home runs. Maris ended up with 61 in ’61. Mantle hit 54. Neither one of them came close to those numbers again. But on Opening Day one year ago, who knew what Judge and Giancarlo might do now that they were together?
“That was cool, man,” Stanton said that day in Toronto, almost one year ago. “I tried to be as calm as possible coming up, and the anticipation was big for me. I was able to settle it down and understand that it’s just a game, even though it’s a big-time Opening Day.”
We really thought it possible that Judge might hit 100 homers between them, chase Mantle and Maris’ 115 the way Mantle and Maris had chased Ruth. No one thought a number like that was out of reach.
They hit 65 between them. Stanton ended up with 38 (to go along with 100 RBIs), Judge -- who took a pitch on his right wrist at the end of July and ended up playing just 112 games -- hit 27.
By the end of the Yankees’ AL Division Series against the Red Sox, Stanton had become the face of the Yanks’ hit-or-miss home run season. He left the bases loaded near the end of Game 1 -- one of his four strikeouts in that game. Stanton struck out in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4, when he represented the tying run with two runners on and with New York trying to fight off elimination against Craig Kimbrel.
Stanton did manage to hit a home run against the A’s in the AL Wild Card Game that added to a big Yankees lead at Yankee Stadium. Against the Red Sox, he was 4-for-18 with four singles and no RBIs.
Now Stanton has had a year of being a Yankee and being in New York and playing at Yankee Stadium and dealing with expectations as big as he is, and as big as New York City. He and Judge are still the only teammates since Mantle and Maris over 50 years ago with 50-homer seasons on their resumes. And if they are both blessed with good health this season, maybe this is the year they make pitchers afraid to come out of the clubhouse, the way they were supposed to last season.
Stanton isn’t going anywhere. The Yankees have him under contract for almost as long as the Phillies have Bryce Harper and the Angels have Mike Trout. Both Stanton and Judge have hit balls out of sight during Spring Training. Stanton hit a broken-bat home run the other day.
Stanton has not just been a Yankee for a whole season now. He has also seen more AL pitching than he ever saw before in his life. And even though he is a right-handed hitter, he is still hitting in a ballpark -- the new Yankee Stadium -- that sees baseballs fly out of it as if they are golf balls.
So maybe Year 2 for the combination of Judge and Stanton is the Home Run Derby that we expected from them before Stanton underperformed last season and before Judge missed seven weeks with that chip fracture in his wrist. Even with Judge missing that time and hitting just barely more than half the home runs he’d hit the year before when he was runner-up to Jose Altuve for the AL MVP Award, the Yankees still broke a record -- and nearly a bunch of windows -- with 267 home runs. There has been some loud talk out of Tampa about how they might hit even more this time.
All Rise Judge and Stanton were supposed to be the most fearsome 1-2 punch in the sport last season. Only J.D. Martinez, who hit 43 for the Red Sox, became a far more significant acquisition for them than Stanton was for the Yankees. He and Mookie Betts, the eventual AL MVP Award winner, became the 1-2 punch that the Yankees hoped that Judge and Stanton would be.
The Red Sox beat the Yankees out of the AL East title, beat them in the ALDS, then won it all. Judge kept hitting home runs against Boston in the playoffs. Stanton, who had hit the ball hard against the Red Sox during the regular season, sure did not.
Stanton still doesn’t turn 30 until November. Judge turns 27 next month. The Yankees still have two big 50 home-run guys when there’s just one other one -- Chris Davis -- active in the big leagues. Maybe the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium has just been delayed a year, to the New Year in baseball that begins on Thursday.