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Aaron Judge's big toe more than a New York Yankees footnote after injury last year

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Aaron Judge's big toe is more than a footnote for the New York Yankees.

Judge missed 42 games after tearing a ligament in his right big toe when he crashed into the right-field fence at Dodger Stadium last June 3, a big reason the Yankees fell from postseason contention.

“It’s going to be I think a constant maintenance I think the rest of my career,” Judge said Tuesday. “Anything with injuries like that, you just got to stay on top of it so it doesn’t flare up again.”

The affable 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger returned July 28 and wound up hitting .262 with 37 homers and 75 RBIs in 106 games.

“I keep getting hurt in right field, so I think that’s why they moved me to center field,” he said, drawing laughs at a news conference.

“I think it's about playing smarter,” he went on, “understanding the field, understanding the dimensions. In that case, I thought I had one extra step and I didn’t in that situation, so that always goes back on me. I got to be a little smarter there. So, yeah, just like this year, I've got play smart. But, no, I don’t think they'll be any cement bottoms of walls in center field.”

Judge hit 62 homers in 2022, breaking Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 in 1961. The Yankees batted a major league-low .202 during his absence last summer and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

“A lot of guys were embarrassed,” Judge said. “Kind of a wake-up call, and I think just collectively as a group we all kind of looked at each other and said this can't happen again.”

In Judge’s first season as Yankees captain, the 82-80 record was New York's worst since 1992 and its World Series title drought reached 14 years — the Yankees' longest since the gap from 1978 to 1996.

“It still eats at me. It still bites in me,” Judge said.

Two months from his 32nd birthday, Judge has managed majestic statistics over eight major league seasons. He could put himself in the pinstriped pantheon alongside Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter.

Could.

“Rookie of the Year, MVP,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “You need to win a title.”

Judge took on-field batting practice against Nestor Cortes alongside Juan Soto, the star outfielder acquired in December from San Diego going into his last season before free agency. Cortes struck out Soto three times, but Judge focused on Soto's power over the day.

“A couple of the balls that he had out to left-center were how a right-handed guy hits it,” the righty-hitting Judge gushed. “He’s got such a great demeanor — the swagger.”

Boone plans to hit Soto and Judge second and third, though the order could switch at times, envisioning them both to have .400-plus on-base percentages. Judge hit second in 102 of 104 starts last year and 528 of 809 in his big league career but prefers to bat third this season, behind the lefty-swinging Soto.

“It might be a little old school-thinking on my part because some of the guys I've watched growing up, the best hitters are hitting third and the run-producers are hitting three and four,” he said.

Judge became the Yankees' first captain since Jeter from 2003-14 after signing a $360 million, nine-year contract. He has evolved into a sterner role that Boone says requires Judge “having to be a little firm in certain situations.”

“There’s just been incremental gains in his leadership every year,” the manager said, “and maybe stepped up a bit more last year with actually now you are the captain of this team and there is responsibility that comes with that.”

Already a five-time All-Star, Judge has a .282 average, 257 homers, 572 RBIs and a .982 OPS.

“He is not only the face of our team, but I think certainly one of the faces of the game,” Boone said. “With good health, years from now he’ll start to have the longevity where you’ll see him start to pile up numbers that rival greats. We just have got to take care of the championship part of it.”

Judge realizes he'll be, yes, judged, by titles.

“My best season will be when we're holding up that trophy,” he said.

ON THE ROAD BACK

CF Jasson Domínguez, recovering from Tommy John surgery on Sept. 20, started throwing from 60 feet last week and expects to start swinging a bat next week.

FAMILIAR FACES

Former Yankees CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph are guest instructors, and Pettitte intends to work with players during the season.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/ml

Ronald Blum, The Associated Press