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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

After hitting No. 62, Judge acknowledges pressure of chase

A relaxed Aaron Judge discussed his achievement in a news conference after the game.

By James Wagner

As he rounded first base, Aaron Judge smiled.

If the pressure of chasing a home run record and the frustration that it was taking longer than expected were getting to him, Judge barely showed it. For two weeks now, many across the baseball world have tuned into every one of his at-bats to see if he would make history — or not — with his 62nd home run of the season. Opposing fans cheered for him. His teammates and coaches prayed that the weight on him would soon be lifted.

In the waning days of one of the greatest offensive seasons in history, Judge did finally release some exasperation during the first game of the New York Yankees’ doubleheader against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday. After popping out, he slammed his helmet against a rack in the dugout. It was a rare public outburst for Judge. He later explained that he was upset by his recent poor at-bats and inability to help his team.

But once the moment that everyone had been waiting for came — a 391-foot blast off Jesús Tinoco that landed in section 31 over the left field wall at Globe Life Field in Arlington to pass Roger Maris and set an American League single-season home run record — Judge could relax. He had finally done it.

“A big relief,” he said afterward, then smiling. “Now everybody can probably sit down in their seats and watch the ballgame.”

So many had been anxious for this blast: Judge, his family, his teammates, his coaches, the Maris family, Yankees fans and even his opponents and their fans. Only six people in baseball history have hit 60 home runs or more in a season. The three with more than Judge — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — all did so before steroid testing began in Major League Baseball and have each been linked to drug scandals.

As Judge piled up home runs over the summer and reached his 50th in late August, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said he began to think that Judge had a chance at breaking Maris’ record set in 1961. Judge said he couldn’t pinpoint that moment himself because he focuses so much on the daily grind of the sport and sets big goals for himself every winter anyway.

“Every year, I think I can go out there and hit 70 homers,” he said.

The past few weeks, though, have felt tedious compared to Judge’s previous 5 1/2 months. In his first 142 games this season, he homered roughly every 11 plate appearances. But once he got to 60 home runs, it took 35 plate appearances to get the next blast, a slower pace caused by a combination of teams walking him and him missing the few offerings over the plate he did receive.

And once Judge got to home run No. 61, he was relieved. But then came more attention and anticipation. It took another 24 plate appearances to get the next home run.

During that span, Judge looked off at the plate. He amassed only three hits in 17 at-bats, none for extra bases. His average dropped to .311, likely ending his chances of earning the rare feat of a triple crown because Minnesota’s Luis Arráez will enter the final day of the regular season hitting .316. Fans at Globe Life Field cheered when Judge stepped to the plate and booed when he didn’t clobber a ball over the fences.

“I got a base hit the other night and I was getting booed for a single,” he said with a chuckle, recalling how much fans also wanted to see him make history.

The nightcap of Tuesday’s doubleheader was the 55th straight game started by Judge. Since the Yankees won the AL East title Sept. 27 and secured a bye in the first round of the playoffs, most of the team’s regular players have gotten days off. Boone said he had at least considered giving Judge one Monday or during one of Tuesday’s games. But he insisted that he hadn’t noticed the chase wearing Judge down enough physically to mandate one. And a decision to rest during this period would be largely driven by Judge anyway, Boone said.

“It was weighing on him, not heavily, but I think he was carrying it around. Every day, it’s kind of madness and anticipation,” Boone said.

Added Yankees starter Gerrit Cole: “This is the first time I’ve seen it wear on him, to be honest, just a little bit. Not from a personal standpoint, I don’t think, but probably from a selflessness standpoint, like ‘I want to make everyone happy.’”

Judge, though, wanted to keep playing. There was a record to chase. And Judge, who had dealt with injuries often earlier in his career and is a free agent after this season, has frequently pointed to his ability to play more than ever this season as the biggest reason for his performance. The clock was ticking on the regular season, and Wednesday was his last chance.

“The games started to go a little faster,” he said. “Usually the games kind of drag on and you’re locked in on your at-bats, on defense and stuff like that. But I can’t lie: the past couple games I’d look up and it’s the seventh inning and go, ‘Dang, I only got one more at-bat. We got to figure this out.’ I really never tried to look at a schedule because I think I’d started pressing a little bit. I tried to take it one day at a time and say a little prayer.”

Judge said he felt relaxed when he stepped to the plate to lead off the second game Tuesday. The largest paid attendance in Globe Life Field’s two-year history — 38,832 — was on hand and cheered for him louder than the Rangers. When he connected with Tinoco’s 88 mph slider over the heart of the plate, Judge said he had a good feeling it was gone. He said a sense of relief washed over him when he saw the ball land over the fence, and he thought about the people who have supported him along the way: his wife, his parents, his teammates, the fans.

“It was a magical swing,” Cole said. Added Boone: “You never know how you’re going to react in a moment and it was just so, so very cool. I felt like a little kid again.”

Waiting for Judge at home plate were his teammates and coaches, who each hugged him one by one.

“It was pretty surreal,” he said, adding later, “Those guys are grinding with me every single day and they’ve been along this journey through the ups and downs and to get a chance to share that moment with them on the field was pretty special.”

As he walked off the field into the dugout, Judge waved his helmet toward the Rangers’ bench and stands. When he took his position in right field, fans in the outfield bleachers chanted his name like the trademark Yankee Stadium roll call, which they do for every Yankee player on the field until they acknowledge them with a wave, which Judge did.

With the record now broken, Judge paused for several moments when he was asked if he had felt the stress of the chase.

“I kind of felt bad for my teammates because every single at-bat, I got teammates stacked up on the top step waiting for me to do this, and I’d hit a double or get a walk or I’d do something and I felt like I was letting them down,” he said. “Even the fans at Yankee Stadium or the fans that came here these past two games, I thought I had let them down if I had a 2-for-4 game or 1-for-4 game with a couple walks. I never tried to think about it as pressure. I tried to enjoy every single moment.”

After Judge’s blast, more history was made. In the bottom of the first inning, Cole notched his 249th strikeout of 2022, passing a mark set by Ron Guidry in 1978 for the most strikeouts in a season by a Yankee. Cole’s teammates stood outside the dugout and applauded. And after the game, he and Judge received a toast from their teammates in the clubhouse.

But soon the attention swung back to Judge. When he strode to the plate in the top of the second inning, Judge was serenaded with applause and “M-V-P, M-V-P!” chants again. Boone pulled Judge from the field in the bottom half of the frame, allowing fans to shower him with more cheers and for him to receive another round of hugs from teammates.

From the dugout, Judge watched the remainder of the Yankees’ 3-2 loss. He could finally rest.

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