He won’t be the American League Most Valuable Player. Won’t finish second either, and you can’t rule out him finishing out of the top five altogether.
Yet seemingly with every game he plays, Aaron Judge moves toward two mighty consolation prizes.
One, a championship for the Yankees, has a ways to go, even after Judge led them to a 6-2 victory over the Blue Jays Thursday night, a significant step forward. As for the other, how can the Yankees not seriously discuss a long-term deal with him after this virtuoso display of value?
The behemoth slugged a pair of solo, tape-measure homers over likely American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray of the Jays, and just to round out things, he made a run-saving, diving catch in right field.
“He’s a superstar,” Anthony Rizzo, who delivered a vital home run himself, said of Judge.
“He’s playing like the great player that he is right now when we need him the most,” Aaron Boone said.
Thanks to the Red Sox falling to the Orioles, 6-2 down in Baltimore, the Yankees (91-68) find themselves in a very good spot as they return home to finish their regular-season schedule with three games against the Rays, who already have clinched the AL’s top seed for the playoffs: One more win assures them of a tie-breaking contest on Monday. Two more gets them home-field advantage in the Oct. 5 AL wild-card game.
It would be a far hairier landscape for the Yankees had they not toughed this one out behind Judge, who you might recall is playing with a dislocated left pinky that he suffered Sunday night at Fenway Park, one of the Yankees’ five wins during a six-game tour of Boston and Toronto.
“Good, I guess,” Judge said, in assessing the week in which the Yankees revived their season once again. “I wish it was 6-0.”
You can’t have everything, even as Judge has given the Yankees virtually everything. He has lifted the Yankees from all ways, at all times, his excellent statistics (39 home runs and a .923 OPS) compiled not in bursts and halts like his memorable rookie season of 2017 but rather consistently through this rigorous campaign, the only zero on his ledger being the number of visits to the injured list.
On this night, with the Yankees facing a notable disadvantage in the starting pitching matchup, Judge got his guys on the board first with a two-out, mammoth blast to center — measured at 455 feet, his longest of the season — on the first pitch he saw from Ray, a fastball.
“[I was] going up there with an aggressive mindset,” Judge said. “Anything over the plate, I was going to try to do some damage.”
While Corey Kluber pitched admirably against the Jays’ dangerous lineup, mixing and moving his stuff, this version of Kluber can’t get by without a little help from his friends. So in the bottom of the second, with one run already in and Corey Dickerson on second, Judge dove to snare a flare to short right field by Santiago Espinal, a shot with an expected batting average of .610 thanks to its remote location.
“He’s a really good outfielder. On top of that, that pinky on his glove hand probably isn’t feeling great after making a diving catch like that,” Kluber said. “But that’s the kind of player he is.”
“For me, I was kind of picturing in my head, ‘This could be the ballgame right here. I’ve gotta go out there and make the play,’ ” Judge said. “Luckily, I was able to get it in time and secure it. The pinky held on.”
And the 2-1 lead the Jays took in the fifth, on a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. double that hit the top of the center-field wall, didn’t hold on because the Yankees went back-to-back in the sixth, Judge following Rizzo’s game-tying blast with a 441-foot laser to center field, his second tie-breaking dinger of the night. Gleyber Torres soon added a two-run blast to create some breathing room for the Yankees’ stellar bullpen.
My, how far the Yankees have come in this nutso season. How far Judge has come in that same time, reporting to spring training as the guy who couldn’t stay on the field and approaching this last regular-season lap as the club’s best and most popular player.
We can hash out the numbers later. With Judge a year away from free agency, though, he has turned himself into the Most Valuable Yankee. Which generally pays pretty well.