SportsPulse’s Trysta Krick catches up with For The Win’s Ted Berg and USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale, who give us their predictions for this year’s baseball playoffs.
NEW YORK — All rise again.
From the start of the 2017 season until the day he hit the disabled list in late July of this year, Aaron Judge undoubtedly stood as the Yankees’ best hitter and centerpiece of their much ballyhooed youth movement.
But Judge needed nearly two months to recover from the chip fracture he suffered when he took a Jake Junis fastball to the right wrist on June 26, defying the Yankees’ initial estimate that he might miss only a few weeks.
Hand injuries are known to sap hitters’ power, and Judge’s performance in September after his long-awaited return to the lineup offered real cause for concern: The towering slugger had 26 home runs with a .947 OPS in 99 games before the injury, but hit only one long ball with a pedestrian .675 OPS in 11 September games thereafter.
In his first at-bat of the AL wild-card game Wednesday, Judge quieted his doubters in the loudest possible fashion. With leadoff man Andrew McCutchen on first, the 2017 MVP runner-up turned on a 2-1 fastball from A’s opener Liam Hendriks and deposited it deep into the left-field grandstand. The 427-foot shot left Judge’s bat at 116.1 mph, his highest exit velocity since returning from the disabled list, and gave the Yankees an early lead they would never relinquish.
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fter the game, the relentlessly humble outfielder credited his first-inning heroics to starter Luis Severino’s strong performance in the first inning and the energy of the crowd.
“The first thing was just Severino going out there and doing his thing,” Judge said. “It was all just feeding off what he did for us in the top of the first, and trying to get a good swing after (McCutchen) had a great at-bat.
“I was feeding off of (the crowd) from the National Anthem. The last couple of seconds of the National Anthem, I couldn’t hear the ending because the crowd was getting so loud. That’s Yankee Stadium for you.”
Judge would later tack on a squib double down the right field line in the sixth inning to kick off the four-run rally that blew the game open in the Bronx.
While one 2-for-3 night, no matter how convincing, hardly proves Judge is all the way back from the protracted injury, his performance nevertheless makes the Yankees’ batting order look far more formidable heading into the ALDS.
Asked if he felt his swing was back to its pre-injury form, Judge insisted that he has felt normal and healthy since returning from the disabled list.
“I felt like I never left,” he said. “People had questions about the wrist, but I wouldn’t have been playing the past couple of weeks if it wasn’t good.”
The team’s late-season additions of McCutchen and Luke Voit strengthened an already deep offense that powered the club to a 100-win season, but Wednesday marked only the fourth time the nine players in the wild-card game lineup — the Yanks’ best — started the same game.
The Wednesday win ensured that Judge and the Yankees will travel to Boston for a five-game set against the Red Sox starting Friday.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” he said. “They’ve got a great team, great pitching staff, and we’re going to do our homework to be prepared and get ready for a dogfight.
“We’ve got two good teams going up against each other. I’m going to enjoy this series. Fenway Park’s going to be rocking. Yankee Stadium’s going to be rocking.”
Follow Berg on Twitter @OGTedBerg