NEW YORK -- Aaron Judge’s eyes darted from the center of the Yankees’ clubhouse Sunday afternoon, occupying nearly the same swath of carpet where he’d rested 11 months prior. Then, his team had been one of the last ones standing, swept into winter after a lopsided American League Championship Series loss to the Astros. Judge’s immediate reaction had been to declare the season “a failure.”
Now, Judge has the same thought as he and his teammates prepare to head home even earlier. The Yankees were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday, now shifting their outlook toward the 2024 season with a 7-1 loss to the D-backs at a soggy and windswept Yankee Stadium. This marks the Yanks’ first time missing the playoffs since 2016.
“There’s a lot that went wrong,” Judge said. “What it comes down to is, we just didn’t come out here and do our job. With the type of lineup we have, the pitching rotation, we’ve just got to show up collectively. … Every year I’ve been in New York, I’ve been in the postseason. It’s going to be a little different this offseason. It’s just going to give us more time to work and get ready for the next one.”
During Judge’s first full season in 2017, he helped to power the club into the postseason, highlighting an influx of “Baby Bombers” whose arrival seemed to advertise a bright future. But the Yankees were sent home by the Astros in the ALCS that October, then fell short in their next five attempts at a title under manager Aaron Boone, who took over in 2018.
“If I’m not standing here talking to you guys after a championship, it’s a failure,” Judge said. “After all of the work you’ve put in the offseason, training, preparation, coming out here on a daily basis, rain or shine, to play a game -- it’s about bringing a championship back. That’s why we play. That’s why I’m here.
“That’s why I came back to New York with this group of guys, to build something and get New York back to where it’s supposed to be. When you don’t show up and produce and get kicked out like this in the regular season, that’s a big failure right there. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of internal talks, a lot of stuff we’ve got to get figured out.”
With the Yanks’ record at 78-77, their remaining seven contests will see them try to keep alive a streak of winning records that has extended for 30 consecutive seasons (since 1993).
“We know we’re good enough to be where we want to be. We just haven’t done it,” DJ LeMahieu said. “I’ve been on some [nearly-] 100-loss teams earlier in my career where things didn’t go great, but we were a little short-handed. That’s why it’s frustrating, because we know we’ve got the guys. We just couldn’t collectively put it together.”
Boone said that the Yankees expected starting pitching to be a strength, and while Gerrit Cole is on track for the AL Cy Young Award, injuries ravaged much of the rest of their envisioned rotation.
The tone of the season seemed to shift when Judge slammed into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium on June 3, with the reigning AL MVP sustaining a torn ligament in his right big toe that would cause him to miss nearly two months.
“I remember a point early in the year, maybe in the first two months, where we were 10 [games] over [.500],” Boone said. “It was like, ‘We’ve just got to hang on until we get our pitching back intact.’ It never really got going; we lost Judgie, and some other guys went down, so it made it challenging. Early on, we were staying afloat, but not having the starting pitching we expected was probably the start of things.”
Veterans like LeMahieu, Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton struggled to pick up the slack, lowlighted by a dismal 1-5 trip to Colorado and Anaheim out of the All-Star break. Judge’s July 28 return offered hope, but a nine-game August skid seemed to secure the Yankees’ fate.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” said Carlos Rodón, who started Sunday and yielded five runs (three earned) over 6 1/3 innings. “We viewed ourselves as a championship club, and this year we underperformed massively. It just has not been good.”
There have been nights when Boone said he has found himself staring at a ceiling, mulling the couldas, wouldas and shouldas of yet another season in which the franchise’s stated goal of a World Series championship will go unfulfilled.
They absorbed a handful of gut-wrenching defeats, sure. But more frequently, these Yankees simply looked ordinary in a year when so much more was expected.
“What you work hard towards all year round -- wintertime through Spring Training through the season -- is an opportunity to play in October and compete for a championship,” Boone said. “The reality of that not being in play, it sucks.”