May 21, 2024

NEW YORK — Aaron Judge was quiet.

When asked what he learned about his team during a difficult first year as captain, the five-time All-Star took a full 16 seconds before responding. From his locker at the far end of the New York Yankees clubhouse, Judge stood, his eyes scanning the room as his mind scanned everything that happened this year.

“Honestly,” the 31-year-old outfielder said, “this really tested everybody’s character. It tested my character.”

For the first time since Judge made his MLB debut in 2016, the Yankees’ bad days outweighed the good. On Sunday, whatever still-existing playoff dreams the team might have had were officially dashed when a loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks eliminated New York from postseason contention. And throughout the Yankees’ final homestand, which ends Monday, Judge and his teammates admitted this has been a year they hope to never repeat.

“You kind of get tested at a time when things aren’t going your way, when guys get hurt, you’re not getting the call that you want, the ball’s not falling the way that you want it to,” Judge told ESPN. “It challenges you to continue to show up every day and compete. This just really tested guys. You’ve really got to want to be here. You’ve really got to want it and bring it every single day.”

The Yankees’ 2023 season ends Sunday in Kansas City. Instead of a postseason, as October begins, the Yankees will be taking vacations, going on fishing trips, spending time with loved ones, reconditioning their bodies and resetting their minds. They certainly won’t be playing for a World Series.

“When you come to New York, you’ve got to win. It’s about winning a World Series,” Judge said. “If you don’t win a World Series, it’s like: ‘What are we doing?'”

After getting as far as the American League Championship Series in three of the past six seasons, the Yankees will be at home in October for the first time since 2016.

Although there is a belief throughout the club that this season will ultimately be a minor blip, that doesn’t change the reality of what could’ve been.

“You take it very personally,” said manager Aaron Boone, whose job security after his fifth season in charge remains a question entering the offseason. “We have to own it, and I have to own it. We are the leaders of this team, and you’ve got to take the good with the bad.

“We pour a lot into this, 365 days a year, to be a championship-caliber team, and when we fall short of that … that’s tough.”

Nobody knows that better than second baseman Gleyber Torres, who was called up in 2018. For the first time in his career, he won’t be playing any meaningful games in October.

“How we play right now is just like, we don’t want that,” Torres said. “We want to play like how we were last year — just consistency every day.”

At this point, it isn’t surprising that this is the way New York’s season is ending. Injuries and offensive inconsistency have plagued the organization since early June, making this the year’s long-anticipated destination.

Ahead of Opening Day, though, there were vastly different expectations. On paper, the Yankees were an elite squad thought to be a serious AL contender. Coming out of spring training, ESPN’s panel of experts ranked them as MLB’s fourth-best team, with an 88% chance of making the playoffs and the highest World Series odds of any team.

For Judge, all that makes it even more frustrating that this happened on his watch — and while he was on the sideline for much of the season, missing 51 games with a toe injury.

“Not being out there for the guys every single day, and not helping them give us an opportunity to get to the postseason, that kills me,” Judge said. “Me getting hurt, I felt like I impacted the team and impacted their chances.

“That eats at me every night.”

The Yankees could be inclined to trace the start of their season’s demise back to June 3, when Judge crashed into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium while chasing a deep fly ball. As his 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame ripped through the gated, chain-link portion of the fence, his right foot struck a concrete siding that runs along the very bottom of the outfield wall.

The full-speed impact resulted in a torn ligament in his right big toe, sending Judge to the injured list.

During that stretch, the Yankees also lost a number of other players to injuries and inconsistent performance. The 2022 All-Star battery of catcher Jose Trevino and pitcher Nestor Cortes went down with season-ending injuries. First baseman Anthony Rizzo suffered post-concussion symptoms from an incident in May and missed significant time, as did starting pitchers Luis Severino and Carlos Rodon, designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton and other once-key Yankees — including Josh Donaldson and Harrison Bader — who aren’t even on the team anymore.

Though Judge’s lengthy absence from injury won’t be remembered as the only factor that led to New York’s downfall this season, to him, none of that matters.

“It just goes back to: You only get so many years to get a chance to play here in New York,” Judge said. “I just signed a long-term deal, so I’m going to be here for a couple more years, but there are guys we don’t re-sign or they’re going to be a free agent, and this could be the one chance to make a postseason or make an impact in New York. And I kind of take responsibility for that.

“Not giving them a chance to see what it’s like in a postseason in October in New York hurts. Them missing out on an opportunity like that, I take full responsibility for that. That’s on me. I’m the one going out there every single day. I’ve got to go out and show up and put our team in the best position.”

Boone was not surprised that his star player was laying so much of the fault of the season’s failures at his own feet.

“He’ll have games periodically during the season where he’ll have this great game and then not get a big hit in a big spot and he’ll be: ‘It’s on me. It’s on me,'” Boone said. “He just expects a lot.”

Despite seeing a dip in his batting average (from .291 to .268) since returning from the toe injury July 28, Judge has nonetheless been a welcome presence in the Yankees’ lineup down the stretch. With two series to go, he has 35 home runs, good for fourth in the AL.

Last week he became the first Yankee with multiple three-home run games in a single season. Both came after his IL return, helping assuage concerns about his recovery and reigniting hope for next season.

Judge will be back, obviously, as will ace Gerrit Cole, who capped what is expected to be a Cy Young Award-winning season by tossing an eight-inning two-hitter Thursday night — a performance in which he took a perfect game into the sixth.

“It’s disappointing that we’ve had the season that we’ve had, that’s for sure,” Cole said. “But regardless of if you’re in it or you’re not, as a professional, you’ve got to do your job. Sometimes you have to find different ways to get energy, or to focus in games that are maybe obviously a little less intense than they are if you’re competing for the division … [but] people are buying tickets, you’re getting paid a salary and honestly, it is still fun.”

Judge takes solace in the team’s rebound after the last time it missed the playoffs. The 2016 squad went 84-78, and, with a run for the division crown seemingly out of reach by that August, the club called up Judge and other young prospects. They finished fourth in the division — and then made six straight postseason appearances.

The message that Judge — the only current Yankee to have played in games for that 2016 team — received from veterans like Brett Gardner, CC Sabathia, Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran at the time was to keep doing the work. Keep improving.

“That was probably the most powerful lesson: Just because you made it up here doesn’t mean that the journey is over, that the work’s over, that the grind’s over,” Judge said. “Getting up here and seeing guys like Mark Teixeira, in spring training seeing Alex Rodriguez and Beltran. They’re future Hall of Famers, and they’re still working on their craft. Even at age 38, 39, 40.

“You’ve got to make adjustments. You can’t be satisfied. It’s just an eye-opening thing for a lot of guys that hey, the journey’s not done. Don’t be satisfied just because you get the call-up.”

It’s the same message that he, Cole and the few other veterans in this current clubhouse have passed on to the sizable group of young Yankees, like rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe and outfielder Jasson Dominguez, who made their debuts or got significant late-season call-up time this year.

“Throughout the whole year it’s been a wake-up call. And as much as we’ve stuck to our routines, there are things that we need to do differently to be better next year,” 28-year-old pitcher Michael King said. “It’s not a fun position to be in. We don’t like being here, and I’m hoping that all of us don’t like being here, and we’ll make that transition.”

That attitude is what gives Judge confidence in the team’s improvement next year. He credits the team’s ALCS appearance in 2017 in part because of how badly the squad wanted to erase the disappointing ending the year before. The 2024 group will need to follow suit.

“I didn’t like the taste of having everybody in the clubhouse, and when the last game was over, that was it,” Judge said. “Just having that taste and seeing the disappointment and seeing the veterans talk about it. I said, ‘I don’t want to experience this. I want to be playing the last game of the year all the way to the end.’

“So that’s one lesson we can take out of this. We’ve got a lot of improvements, and a lot of things we’ve got to work on and fix for the upcoming years. And the time for that starts now.”

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