Aaron Judge shows why he’s so important to Yankees: Sherman

You could have a fine debate this year about who is the Yankees’ Most Valuable Player, DJ LeMahieu or Luke Voit? The guy who led the majors in batting average or the guy who led the majors in homers? You go back and forth, and forth and back and the answer is … Aaron Judge.

Judge did not outplay LeMahieu or Voit in the abridged 2020. Not even close. But he is the Yankee bellwether. When he performs well, the Yankees almost always do too. That is his value. The Yankees play better and feel different when Judge is healthy and hits with impact.

“He has a presence in there that the guys feed off of a little bit,” Aaron Boone said.

The tone was set four pitches into Tuesday night’s Game 1 against the Indians — and that tone was that the Yankee offense was not going to roll over and play dead against Shane Bieber. Instead, they were going to steamroll the best pitcher in the majors this year.

Gerrit Cole would describe what LeMahieu and Judge did to begin this game as “a left jab and right hook.” That wobbled Bieber and the ace never recovered. LeMahieu, on a 2-0 count, familiarly darted a single to right field to open the game. Bieber tried to get ahead with a first pitch fastball away to Judge. But it leaked back toward the heart of the plate. Judge said, “That’s why I got out of bed this morning, to get that pitch.”

Aaron Judge celebrates with Aaron Hicks after hitting a two-run homer in the first inning of the Yankees' 12-3 Game 1 win over the Indians.
Aaron Judge celebrates with Aaron Hicks after hitting a two-run homer in the first inning of the Yankees’ 12-3 Game 1 win over the Indians.Corey Sipkin

The Yankees ended the season playing poorly. They were miserable away from The Bronx all year. They had not excelled against the best teams on their schedule. And they were facing a starter who had surrendered one first-inning run on three hits in 12 starts this year.

It all melted away in one Judge swing that made Progressive Field look like it had a short right-field porch. Judge hit that leak-back fastball 108 mph. The shot was towering. It landed 399 feet away. And gave the Yankees not just an instant 2-0 lead, but as vital a quick reality that indeed a new season had started. The bad play was behind them.

“I wanted to set the tone for the team for what we are going to do this postseason,” Judge said.

Judge triggered perhaps the best Yankee performance of this season — particularly considering the opposing starter and setting. The entire lineup excelled in what became a 12-3 rout of the Indians. Not much offense was needed with Gerrit Cole performing like a $324 million man. The defense was sound. And Aaron Boone could take genius bows for benching Clint Frazier in favor of Brett Gardner, who responded with a single, double, homer and three RBIs.

All in all, a terrific beginning for the Yankees to the 2020 playoffs. They were the prime-time game. Three AL games were played before Yankees-Indians. The three winners combined for 11 runs — or one fewer than the Yanks produced on an evening when runs were supposed to be difficult to generate.

After all, Bieber had a 1.63 ERA this year and a .167 batting average against and had struck out more than 41 percent of the batters he faced. But that was against exclusively the AL and NL Central in the regionalized 2020 schedule. This felt like a step up in weight class as the Yankees returned to being Bronx Bombers, successfully hunting Bieber’s fastball and hitting four homers overall.

Judge had just one hit in this game. But timing matters. Judge was 1-for-5 with two strikeouts and a homer. The same line produced by Giancarlo Stanton. But Judge’s homer came at 0-0 with the bad recent juju hanging over the Yankees. It unleashed offensive hell against the ace of the sport in 2020. Stanton’s homer came off the last man on the Indians staff, Cam Hill, with the Yanks already up 11-2 in the ninth.

“There is no doubt that he is a great player and huge between the lines for us,” Boone said of Judge. “There’s no doubt the edge he has and plays with; and when he is rolling it rubs off from an energy standpoint on our team.”

Judge hadn’t homered in his 10-game return after two injured-list stints for a calf ailment. He batted just .194 in that span. It was part of the malaise that enveloped the Yankees late in the season. That lifted with Judge’s drive to right. It was a 2-0 lead and a confidence boost that Bieber was hittable, beatable, that in Gardner’s words “a new season had begun.”

Bieber was erratic in his first career postseason start and the Yankees made it tough on him with one excellent at-bat after another — Gardner, Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit in particular. Bieber lasted 4 ²/₃ innings and yielded nine hits and seven runs. He never had a 1-2-3 inning. Every Yankee except Stanton reached safely against him. Every Yankee except Stanton and Cole’s catcher Kyle Higashioka either drove in a run or scored a run against Bieber.

The launch to this attack came off the bat of Judge. He made an impact. The Yankees won easily. No coincidence.