ALCS Game 3: The mistake pitch that led to the Aaron Judge of old for one at-bat

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

NEW YORK – All October, pitchers straddling the mound 60 feet, 6 inches from Aaron Judge narrowed their eyes and saw the same thing: multiple fingers. Catchers for the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros have spent the month squatting and plumbing the card catalogs of their minds, and each reads the same: Judge is vulnerable to breaking balls, so throw down the two-, three- or four-finger sign calling for them and escape unscathed.

Not only has it worked, but in his first at-bat of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Monday night, Judge set a single-season record for postseason strikeouts – and the month wasn’t even halfway over. It was curious, then, that the Houston Astros, with their two-games-to-none lead in the series, chose to attack Judge how they did, with a steady diet of fastballs, one after another, tempting him, coaxing him, goading him into remembering the sort of damage he could do when fed a pitch more to his liking.

Finally, in his second at-bat of the night, he got it: 93 mph, high for most but right at his belt, inside but not so far he couldn’t whip around the head of his 35-inch, 33-ounce bat, the kind of pitch that can change a series. And not because the three-run home run Judge topspun into the left-field stands at Yankee Stadium had a particularly profound effect on the ultimate outcome of New York’s 8-1 victory over the Astros in Game 3. It didn’t. In case Judge needed a reminder, though, that this hack-a-thon in which he’d participated over the previous two weeks didn’t render moot his ability to play this game as well as anyone still alive in this postseason, well, this was a push notification that went off at the exact right time.

“You can’t have all the good, come out here and hit a thousand, even though I want to,” Judge said. “It’s baseball, I’ve got to enjoy the good times and the bad times. That’s what I picked up and learned from my teammates. They’ve supported me through the good times and the bad times.”

To call the times bad understates his October thus far. The only surprise of it is that the Yankees have managed not to be sucked into his vacuum of production. Coming into Monday, Judge was 4 for 31 with 19 strikeouts – and two of those hits, including his only previous home run, came in the wild card game.

New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge hits a three-run home run during the fourth inning of Game 3 of baseball’s American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in New York. (AP)

Teams haven’t just fed Judge a diet of breaking balls to neutralize him; it’s been more like gavage. Game 3 was only the second of nine games this postseason in which Judge saw more fastballs than breaking balls, and with 14 of the 20 pitches fastballs, it was by far the highest percentage. Coming into the game, Judge had faced 201 pitches in October, and 112 of them – or 55.7 percent – were breaking balls. During the regular season, of the 2,985 pitches Brooks Baseball tracked in Judge’s at-bats, just 942 were curveballs or sliders – 31.6 percent.

Scouts and analysts saw the same thing: Not only were Judge’s power numbers significantly worse against breaking balls – he hit just eight of his 52 regular-season home runs off curveballs and sliders – but he swung and missed twice as often. That number has spiked even higher in the playoffs. While Judge is whiffing on about one of every four swings he takes at a fastball, as he did during the regular season, his swing-and-miss percentage on breaking balls coming into Game 3 was 65.9 percent.

The home run pitch from Astros reliever Will Harris was a clear mistake in both pitch choice and location. Judge’s vulnerability below the strike zone in October has been as evident as his troubles with breaking balls. Pitchers are doing everything they can to get Judge to chase, throwing 83 of those 201 pitches below the strike zone. Even if Judge has exercised decent patience, swinging at just 15 of them, that virtue has not translated to contact: He has missed all 15.

It has been reminiscent, in some ways, of the near-two-month period during which Judge, the runaway AL MVP favorite after the first half, went missing in action. From July 14 through Sept. 9, Judge hit .182/.346/.365. His surge toward the end of the season, in which he hit .367/.512/1.100 with 13 home runs and 27 RBIs in 84 plate appearances over 19 games, thrust him back into the MVP conversation with the Astros’ Jose Altuve. The Yankees can only hope Game 3 serves as a similar launch pad, because with a pair of games left against starters Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, conquering the Astros calls for a hale-and-hearty Judge and not the meek version of late.

“He just sees the big picture,” Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said. “He looks around and sees other guys doing the same thing. I’ve got plenty of dips in my game. We all struggle. It can be a tough game. If you allow it to beat you up mentally, you can get in a really, really bad spot. He’s a pretty resilient guy. Mentally, he’s on top of his game. And he knows good things are around the corner, even when things aren’t going well.”

One swing does not make an October. Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros’ Game 4 starter, features arguably the best curveball in baseball, an 86-mph hammer he throws nearly half the time. It’s difficult to see Houston again deviating from the plan that has worked so well, particularly when it can exploit a matchup that would seem to tilt so in its favor.

Then again, in Game 3 the Astros faced a 37-year-old who has lost about 10 mph off his prime fastball, and he neutered an offense that now has scored five runs in three ALCS games. At 8:08 p.m. ET, the first synth beat of “Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G. leaked through the speakers and CC Sabathia started his long walk toward the mound. He moved with the calculated lethargy of a man who had been there before and need not hurry. Just because Sabathia is not what he once was does not prevent him from doing what he once did, which is win playoff games.

He threw six shutout innings, the first 37-and-over pitcher to do so since Pedro Martinez for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 NLCS. And helping him was Judge, who in the top of the fourth inning tracked a Yuli Gurriel shot into right field, leapt and crashed into the wall, blanketed by a PlayStation ad that said “GREATNESS AWAITS.”

New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge makes a leaping catch of a ball hit by Houston Astros’ Yuli Gurriel during the fourth inning of Game 3 of baseball’s American League Championship Series Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in New York. (AP)

“We have guys on this team,” said Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier, whose awkward-swing second-inning homer over that wall accounted for New York’s first three runs, “that will basically go through walls for everybody.”

“He’s a big guy,” Gardner said, “so the wall’s probably hurting, too.”

The wall shook it off. So did Judge. There was still greatness in him after all, after the struggles, after the trials and travails. It’s easy to forget he’s still a rookie because he’s 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, because he’s so poised, because rookies aren’t supposed to have seasons like he had, aren’t supposed to bounce back from slumps even better than before. It’s what the 49,373 fans at Yankee Stadium for Game 3 so appreciated: The reminder that, yes, Judge is still here and still a force.

“Why would I come in the postseason and try to change something, even though I’m struggling for three or four games, five, six games?” Judge said. “It’s six games.”

Those three and four and five and six can turn into 10 or 20 or 30 easily enough, as Judge knows, and that’s the fear. Because there aren’t 10 or 20 or 30 games left to work through it. There is now. October is finite, and that’s what makes it so cruel, and that’s what makes it so exhilarating, and that’s what makes the fat gold ring with a mine’s worth of diamonds on it so prized. This is the month where the best are supposed to be at their best. For one night at least, Aaron Judge was, and he gave himself a break from the failure that can consume even the best.

Come Game 4 on Tuesday, he’s primed to see a different sort of break. One that will keep testing him until he proves he can beat it, too.

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