Aaron Judge rises to occasion, powers Yanks to wild-card win

NEW YORK -- Rookie Aaron Judge felt nervous as he jogged out to the loudest cheer of any New York Yankees player during pregame introductions. He had never played in a postseason game, and this felt different. The little extras of the postseason -- the bunting, the intros, the added attention -- made him feel a bit out of sorts.

But the crowd rocked him back to normal.

All night, the energy of the fans sounded like one for a college football team, as manager Joe Girardi would say later. It was like a huge pep rally, ushering in what the franchise and its following hope is the beginning of the next dynasty.

If anyone is the big man on campus for the Baby Bombers, it is Judge, the 6-foot-7, 282-pound giant who seems to have stepped out of a storybook.

Judge is bigger than life but has a human touch, as he showed by admitting his nerves. And who could blame him? He is a budding legend in the Bronx, where the expectations to reach the heights of the Ruths, DiMaggios and Jeters are as high as the Yankee Stadium façade.

It is not easy to begin walking in that company. By first pitch, Judge said it felt just like another baseball game, dating to Little League.

"I was feeding off the crowd all night," Judge said.

The crowd sounded like what you'd hear in the old stadium, the one Ruth built and Jeter closed out. The new, more corporate, $1.5 billion venue has always felt a little soulless. But not Tuesday night, not with the Yankees back in the playoffs. And not with Judge around.

"There's just something about him, the way he carries himself that you just feel really good when he's around," Girardi would say after his team came back from a three-run first-inning hole to win the win the wild-card game over the Twins, 8-4.

So after Luis Severino had a home run-to-out ratio of two-to-one, it was Judge and veteran leader Brett Gardner imploring their teammates in the dugout to, "Let's go!" And go they did, as Didi Gregorius smacked a three-run homer in the bottom of the first to clean up Severino's mess. Gardner would go deep in the second. In the fourth, it was the main event, Judge.

He sent a ball into Yankees history, a two-run drive that will be remembered for a long time and extended the lead to 7-4. He joined Elston Howard (1955 World Series) and Shane Spencer (1998 ALDS) as the only Yankees to homer in their postseason debut, according to Elias. But that is just what Judge -- who had more home runs, 52, than any rookie in history -- does.

"He's just very intimidating -- the size and the strength," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "There's just a very small margin of error."

The small margin for error now falls on the Cleveland Indians, who will face the Yankees in a tantalizing best-of-five ALDS beginning Thursday. The Indians probably already know the Yankees are more than Judge.

Gregorius, only two years older than Judge at 27, has replaced Jeter at shortstop. Gregorius is a better defender than Jeter ever was, despite No. 2's Gold Gloves. Gregorius hit 25 homers, which is more than Jeter ever had in one season.

Jeter had his share of big hits in October and, of course, November. Gregorius' three-run smash that evened the game at 3-3 was a big hit in its own right.

The vaunted Yankees bullpen then took over, with relievers Chad Green, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle passing the baton until the ball was finally in closer Aroldis Chapman's hands for the final three outs.

Judge would add another run. In the seventh, he walked and took an extra base on a single to lead to him scoring the eighth Yankees run. He was 2-for-4 on the night.

The standards are high in the Bronx for legends. The stories, the ones that are really remembered forever around these parts, are written in October. They sound like Tuesday night did at Yankee Stadium.

Judge reached the Yankee Stadium crowd in his first postseason game on Tuesday, and they returned the favor.