TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Yankees slugger Aaron Judge took batting practice for the first time since left shoulder surgery and said he is on track to play on opening day.
Judge hit a rookie record 52 home runs last year and was a unanimous pick for AL Rookie of the Year. He said the shoulder started to bother him around the All-Star break but he did not have any injections of painkiller. He refuses to attribute a lengthy slump to the injury.
He is a centerpiece of the Baby Bombers’ batting order along with catcher Gary Sanchez, a lineup boosted by the acquisition of major league home run champion Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins. New manager Aaron Boone plans to have Stanton and Judge — both right fielders — work out in left, and anticipates using the designated hitter spot to rotate players.
“Being around Stanton so far, he’s ready for New York, he’s ready to be here,” Judge said. “He’s going to fit right in with this team. It’s going to be a fun thing we’ve got here.”
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Because he is coming off an injury, Judge was allowed to report early with pitchers and catchers. He had been hitting off a tee and taking soft tosses, then advanced Wednesday to hitting in a batting cage. He expects to hit on the field when position players report next week.
“My main goal is to be ready for opening day and we’re on schedule for that,” Judge said. “Everything is working out the way it’s supposed to be, and I’m looking forward to getting everything going.”
He finished second to Houston infielder Jose Altuve in the AL MVP race. He was hitting .329 with 30 homers and 66 RBIs at the All-Star break, then batted .179 with seven homers and 16 RBIs with 67 strikeouts in his next 44 games through the end of August.
Judge often was seen with packs of ice on his shoulder and it looked as if an injury might be preventing him from swinging freely, but the right fielder and manager Joe Girardi repeatedly said his shoulder was fine.
“It came down to, ‘Can you play?’ And I could play. … If I was able to play, I was going to go out there and be ready for my team,” Judge said. “I don’t like making excuses. My shoulder, my knee, any injury. Like I said, I was able to go out there and play, so it falls on me, not the shoulder or some nagging injury.”
Judge felt the best time for surgery would be in the offseason.
“July, August, everyone is going through something, no one is 100 percent,” Judge said. “We were fighting for first place in the division and fighting for that playoff spot, and I wanted to be out there for the team. … I was able to play. I felt like in the offseason it would give us a couple months to rehab and that was the best time.”
He rebounded to bat .311 with 15 homers and 32 RBIs in the final month of the season. Dr. Neal ElAttrache operated Nov. 20, and the Yankees said the procedure involved a loose-body removal and cartilage cleanup.
Judge finished with a .284 average, 114 RBIs and 208 strikeouts in 155 games, helping New York make it to the AL Championship Series, where they lost to the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros.
Judge is not likely to appear in New York’s first few exhibition games, which start Feb. 23.
“I feel like we’re right on the schedule progression we set up after the surgery,” Judge said. “With that, the games that matter are in April. So if I miss a couple games, which I probably will, early in the spring, I’d rather miss those games than miss games starting at the end of March or early April.”
Before the December trade with the Marlins, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman sought Judge’s opinion on a possible deal for Stanton.
“Go get him,” Judge remembered responding.
New manager Aaron Boone is looking forward to writing Judge and Stanton in his batting order.
“Bottom-line is, when he controls the strike zone, he’s as deadly as anyone in the game,” Boone said of Judge. “He’s also a guy that’s driven. He’s driven to be great.”
Notes: Boone said RHP Masahiro Tanaka was sharp during a 35-pitch bullpen session.
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