CLEVELAND -- When Aaron Judge walked into the New York Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa eight months ago, whether he could be a capable major leaguer was still an open question. On top of the fact that he struck out in half of his 84 at-bats in 2016, there just haven't been many 6-foot-7, 280-pound outfielders in the game's history. Some thought Aaron Judge was too big to succeed.
The Yankees were unsure of their larger-than-life rookie, and they had no intention of simply handing him the right-field job out of spring training. Midway through camp, Yankees GM Brian Cashman said Aaron Hicks held a slight edge. Judge caught Hicks right before Opening Day. You might have heard how it went from there.
Judge's ascent, from untested talent to the potential new face of baseball, comes with expectations that are a mixture of what Yankees fans asked of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Judge is expected to be clutch and powerful.
Wednesday night's winner-take-all Game 5 between Judge’s Yankees and the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field is a legacy game. The Indians will try to keep Cleveland from more sports despair while renewing hope for the Tribe’s first World Series championship since 1948. The Yankees will try to save their manager, Joe Girardi, from a lifetime of regret -- and from possibly losing his job -- after his Game 2 failure.
Judge, 25, will not be defined by the outcome Wednesday, but his reputation will continue to take shape. While Judge won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, hit a rookie-record 52 taters and could be the AL MVP, that won't be enough for many of his team's fans. Like A-Rod before him, Judge appears to be carved from stone and carries with him the expectation that he will take over October.
In the ALDS, Judge has been a little bit Jeter and a little bit A-Rod. The Jeter-esque side of Judge has provided the little moments that change games. Robbing a potential Francisco Lindor two-run homer in the sixth inning of Game 3 might have been the pivotal play in the Yankees' first win of the ALDS -- a moment that could be a part of his legacy if the Baby Bombers win a title this year or in the years to come.
In the wild-card game, Judge hit a two-run homer to extend the Yankees’ lead in their come-from-behind 8-4 win over the Minnesota Twins. In Game 4 of the ALDS, Judge added a two-run, two-strike, two-out double that gave the Yankees a four-run lead. It might have been the biggest hit of the game.
Still, his strikeouts have been glaring. The double is his only ALDS hit so far, in 15 at-bats, and he has struggled to make contact. Judge has struck out in 12 of his 15 at-bats, which is very A-Rodish -- outside of 2009, that is, when A-Rod helped carry the Yankees to a championship.
On Wednesday, all eyes will be on Judge. Until further notice, these Baby Bombers are his team. The young and talented group will be compared to the Core Four, which delivered five titles and so many memorable moments. Judge’s reputation will be measured against Jeter’s and A-Rod’s.
The wins and losses were not always about Jeter and A-Rod. Sometimes they receive too much credit; other times, too much blame.
Now Judge is the man. Sure, starting with CC Sabathia, there will be a lot of important players on the field Wednesday. For Judge, though, fans will spend the winter talking about all of his winning plays -- or all of his strikeouts.
His reputation is deservedly pristine. But legends are made in October.