Aaron Judge picks up where he left off, homers in 1st at-bat

ByMarly Rivera ESPN logo
Friday, March 31, 2023

NEW YORK -- New York Yankees fans did not have to wait long for the team's first win of the season or for reigning American League MVP Aaron Judge's first home run of 2023.

In the first inning on Opening Day, Judge saw a 93 mph sinker from San Francisco Giants ace Logan Webb and deposited it 422 feet over the Yankee Stadium center-field wall for his first home run of season, and the first one leaguewide in 2023, in his first at-bat as the Yankees' captain.

Judge later added a single as the Yankees rolled to a 5-0 victory.

"That's about as tough a guy as you're going to do it against, right on right, Webb is going to keep you in the ballpark," New York manager Aaron Boone said of Judge's home run. "To get a ball up like that, and to hit it out on a cold day, dead center, not only is it is a difficult chore in and of itself. But to get us a shot right there in the first and kind of let Gerrit [Cole] take it from there ... to set the tone for us like that, especially after the offseason, signing back and [being named] captain, for him to get us rolling was very fitting."

Before taking the field Thursday, Judge had joked about Major League Baseball scheduling a Giants-Yankees Opening Day matchup for the first time ever, putting him up against the team that he rooted for growing up in Northern California and that also pursued him in free agency as much as the Yankees did.

"I don't know who at MLB did that to me," Judge said with a smile, "but it's going to be a fun afternoon, that's for sure, getting a chance to play the team I watched a lot as a kid."

Judge, who negotiated with San Francisco in the offseason before signing a nine-year, $360 million deal to remain with the Yankees, called his meetings with the club "a dream come true" but said he was certain he made the right decision in returning to New York.

"I didn't want to go anywhere," Judge reiterated after Thursday's win. "I was pretty vocal about that from the beginning. This is where I wanted be."

Boone said before the game that one of his "lowest, darkest places" in the winter was the period of time he thought that Judge would sign with San Francisco, having to picture him on the third-base line in a Giants uniform on Opening Day.

It was an entirely different script Thursday night.

"That's pretty good," Boone said after the victory. "When your ace goes out there and punches 11 in six innings and the bullpen ... everyone had a hand in it. We were able to add on a couple of insurance with some good, quality at-bats. Caught the ball on defense. Just crisp, which you like to see on Opening Day. I thought we looked like a settled team out there, and that was good to see."

In 2022, Judge was voted AL MVP after threatening for the Triple Crown, finishing first in home runs (62) and RBIs (131) and second in batting average (.311), recording an inordinate 1.111 OPS and breaking Roger Maris' 61-year-old AL home run mark.

Before the game, Judge made sure to shift focus on any expectations of another 60-homer season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the last player with even back-to-back 45-homer seasons was Ryan Howard, who surpassed that total in four straight years from 2006 to 2009.

"I know very few followed up with 60. A couple I know hit 50 after that. But we'll see what happens," Judge said. "Maybe we can make a new list. We'll see."

That list has now begun with home run No. 1, a blast that Yankees ace Gerrit Cole called a "tone-setter" in the game.

Gleyber Torres, who gave the Yankees a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning with a two-run shot of his own, said Judge's homer was far from unexpected. "I'm not surprised," the Yankees' designated hitter said, beaming.

"Getting a chance to get one run on the board there early for Cole, I think it was huge," Judge explained. "It allowed him to settle in and work with a little bit of a lead; the next one [by Torres] gave him a nice cushion to really execute his plan and try to attack the Giants. I think it was huge getting that run there in the first and then letting Cole go out there and do his thing."

Judge added: "Anytime you come away with the win Opening Day, and kind of get things rolling, makes for a pretty special Opening Day."

Cole also had a banner 2023 debut on his fourth Opening Day start in pinstripes, striking out 11 Giants through six innings to set a franchise record previously held by Tim Leary (9 strikeouts, 1991). Webb also set a Giants Opening Day record when he recorded his 12th strikeout in the sixth inning.

"I thought his fastball and his ability to move it around, in, out, up, down, was really strong, coupled with having a presence with the changeup against the lefties," Boone said of Cole's outing. "Threw some really good sliders where he got some strikeouts. Just a really good performance, especially after struggling with the first hitter, kind of found his way and was pretty electric from there."

The game not only marked the start of Judge's captaincy in New York, it also featured the major league debut of 21-year-old rookie Anthony Volpe at shortstop. Volpe referred to Opening Day as "probably the most fun day of my entire life" and said he had "goosebumps the whole day."

Volpe, who went 0-for-2 with a walk and a stolen base, gave the Yankees faithful a big moment to cheer when he kissed the NYY logo on his jersey while his name was chanted for the first time by Yankee Stadium's rowdy right-field fan collective commonly known as the "Bleacher Creatures."

Volpe explained that kissing the logo was an homage to Judge, who had done so in 2022, which was met with a seal of approval by the Yankees' captain. Judge also had high praise for Volpe's poise, with the hefty expectations of being the youngest Yankees starting shortstop since Derek Jeter made his debut at age 20 in 1995.

"I was kind of ragging him a little bit," Judge said of teasing Volpe ahead of Opening Day. "I said, 'Man you know, I know you're a big Yankee fan, you gotta have something special for the bleacher creatures. You're the shortstop of the New York Yankees, you got to have something ...' I think the fans got a pretty good roar. And I know he did not get the hits he wanted, but those will come."

After their Opening Day victory over the Giants, the Yankees announced they acquired right-handed pitcher Colten Brewer from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for cash considerations.

Brewer, 30, spent the majority of the 2022 season in the minor leagues with the Kansas City Royals, recording a 4.76 ERA over 36 relief appearances before being released in August. Brewer had been a 2023 spring training invitee with the Rays and did not allow an earned run over eight relief appearances.

Boone had announced earlier Thursday that the Yankees had "a potential deal going" and that "a pitcher could be play" before the announcement. Acquiring Brewer was actually the 12th roster move announced by the Yankees on a busy Thursday, which also included placing fellow right-handed relievers Lou Trivino (elbow strain) and Tommy Kahnle (biceps tendinitis) on the 15-day injured list.

The Yankees also announced they recalled minor league pitcher Jhony Brito from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Brito will be the starter Sunday for the series finale against the Giants, with the Yankees missing three-fifths of their anticipated 2023 starter rotation, with Luis Severino (low-grade lat strain), Carlos Rodon (forearm) and Frankie Montas (shoulder surgery) all on the injured list.

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