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'Baby' Yankees rise to the challenge in 2017

Judge, Sanchez help power NY to 1 win shy of World Series
MLB.com @BryanHoch

NEW YORK -- The Yankees were the third team left standing in this year's postseason, an accomplishment that most would not have anticipated when they gathered in Tampa, Fla., eight months ago. Still, the journey ended five wins shy of their ultimate goal, which should serve as motivation to accomplish even greater things in the future.

"The closer you get, the harder it hurts when things are over," Brett Gardner said. "ALCS Game 7, that's about as close as we can get to the World Series without getting there. I'm disappointed in the way things ended up, but not disappointed in the way the guys fought this year, the hard work that we put in all year long. We tried as hard as we could, we just came up short."

NEW YORK -- The Yankees were the third team left standing in this year's postseason, an accomplishment that most would not have anticipated when they gathered in Tampa, Fla., eight months ago. Still, the journey ended five wins shy of their ultimate goal, which should serve as motivation to accomplish even greater things in the future.

"The closer you get, the harder it hurts when things are over," Brett Gardner said. "ALCS Game 7, that's about as close as we can get to the World Series without getting there. I'm disappointed in the way things ended up, but not disappointed in the way the guys fought this year, the hard work that we put in all year long. We tried as hard as we could, we just came up short."

With a 91-71 record in 2017, the Yankees posted their 25th consecutive season with a winning record, finishing two games behind the Red Sox in the American League East. Here is a look back at some of the key storylines from a season that will be remembered as one in which the "Baby Bombers" came of age:

1. All Rise

Aaron Judge had a rookie season for the ages, the runaway favorite for AL Rookie of the Year Award and a serious contender for AL MVP. His 52 homers shattered Mark McGwire's 1987 mark of 49 for the most by a rookie, and Judge led the AL with 128 runs scored and 127 walks. He also led the Majors with 208 strikeouts, and he hit 33 homers in 77 games at Yankee Stadium, breaking the franchise record for home dingers in a single season.

Video: See all 52 of Aaron Judge's rookie record homers

"Getting my first chance to play in front of crowds like that and situations like that is going to be huge for us," Judge said after the AL Championship Series presented by Camping World. "We have a lot of young guys on this team, so going this far is going to be beneficial for us down the road. Just getting a taste of it and getting our feet wet was the biggest thing."

Though he slumped for six weeks after winning the T-Mobile Home Run Derby in July, a skid that included setting a Major League record by striking out in 37 consecutive games, Judge's .627 slugging percentage was the highest by a qualifying rookie in the Modern Era (since 1900). Judge homered against all other 14 AL teams, crossing the last club -- Kansas City -- off his list with the homer that tied McGwire's record on Sept. 25.

"Great year," CC Sabathia said. "Best rookie season I've ever seen; I think all of us have ever seen. Hopefully he comes back, works hard, and we can repeat it again next year."

2. Unleash the Kraken

Despite missing most of the season's first month with a right biceps strain, Gary Sanchez set a franchise record for the most home runs by a Yankees catcher, shattering the previous mark of 30 shared by Yogi Berra (1952, '56) and Jorge Posada (2003). Sanchez's 33 homers were the most by any catcher since the Braves' Javy Lopez hit 43 in 2003.

Video: All 12 of Gary Sanchez's August home runs

"It's simple," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "If you stop swinging at bad pitches and you make sure you swing at good pitches, make sure you have good contact, good things are going to happen."

Though his defense received criticism, with manager Joe Girardi publicly challenging him to improve after watching a passed ball sail through his legs during an August series in Cleveland, Sanchez led all catchers with 79 runs, 33 homers, 90 RBIs and a .531 slugging percentage. He caught 33.9 percent of runners attempting to steal and ranked fourth among qualified players with a 3.43 catcher's ERA.

3. Powering up

The Yankees' offense presented a challenge for opponents to contend with on a nightly basis. Their +198 run differential ranked second in the Majors only to Cleveland (+254), and New York finished second in the Majors with 858 runs scored and 5.30 runs per game. Only Houston (896 runs, 5.53 runs per game) was better during the regular season.

General manager Brian Cashman had speculated that the offense would improve by replacing the trio of Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira with Judge, Sanchez and Greg Bird, though no one had Judge pegged for an MVP-caliber season.

Video: Judge, Sanchez, Bird deliver historic postseason HRs

The '17 Yankees outscored their '16 counterparts by 178 runs, the franchise's largest single-year improvement in a non-strike season since 1935-36.

"I think you're playing in Yankee Stadium, the atmosphere is like this every day," Didi Gregorius said. "I think the guys grew up right away. I think all the guys here are just as ready as they were Day 1. It's been amazing."

4. Sev situation

After being demoted to both the bullpen and the Minors last year, Luis Severino flourished in his return to the rotation, arguably putting together the best season by a homegrown Yankees starter since Ron Guidry. Severino was 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA in 31 starts, ranking third in the AL in ERA and fourth in strikeouts (230).

Video: CLE@NYY Gm4: Severino K's nine in strong outing

Severino assembled the highest K/9 ratio in Yankees history at 10.71 and led the Majors with 16 starts of one or zero runs. He had never pitched in a playoff contest of any type before this year, starting four games in the postseason. His best was Game 4 of the AL Division Series against the Indians in New York, where he struck out nine and held Cleveland to three runs over seven innings.

5. Going for it

One year after the Yankees were forced to take a hard look in the mirror and recognize that they were not ready to compete for a title, Cashman and his lieutenants saw a roster that deserved the opportunity to declare itself. A frenzied 18-day stretch in July saw six players added to the Yankees' roster, capped by the arrival of right-hander Sonny Gray, who was viewed by many as the top available starting pitcher in the marketplace.

Video: ALCS Gm3: Frazier belts opposite-field three-run jack

The flurry of acquisitions also brought in the trio of Todd Frazier, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson from the White Sox, along with first baseman Garrett Cooper from the Brewers and left-hander Jaime Garcia from the Twins. Frazier's arrival shifted Chase Headley to first base, stabilizing a position where they had lacked production while waiting for Bird to return from injury. Kahnle and Robertson both became trusted members of the power bullpen down the stretch.

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook.

New York Yankees, Todd Frazier, Sonny Gray, Aaron Judge, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino