Aaron Judge got Yankees this far; how far can they take him?

Aaron Judge’s home-run-record chase has only focused an even brighter spotlight on his Yankees teammates.

Yes, he’s gotten his fair share of good pitches to hit, but it’s become clear pitchers are largely staying away from Judge and pitching around him if not intentionally walking him.

As a result, Judge’s home-run pace slowed as he patiently stalked Roger Maris’ American League — and the untainted-by-steroids — single-season home run record. He had hit just one home run in his past 13 games before leading off Tuesday’s doubleheader nightcap against the Rangers with home run No. 62. He walked 19 times in that span, however, as opposing pitchers continually decided to wrangle with the Yankees’ other hitters.

As the Yankees enter the playoffs, that will only become more commonplace, as runs come at even more of a premium.

After Judge, who recently has been hitting in the leadoff spot, Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton and DJ Lemahieu play the biggest roles. They each carry worries with them into the playoffs, however.

Rizzo has struggled to get back to his first-half form after a back injury and subsequent epidural-induced headaches forced him to the IL. In his past 10 games entering Tuesday, Rizzo slashed just .205/.311/.644 with a .644 OPS. In the first half of the season, Rizzo owned an .842 OPS, providing much-needed cover behind Judge in the batting order. That protection has dissipated with Rizzo’s continued struggles, which continued with an 0-for-3 performance in Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader.

Anthony Rizzo #48 of the New York Yankees reacts as he walks to the dugout after striking out during the second inning of a game between the Los Angeles Angels and the New York Yankees at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on August 29, 2022 in Anaheim, California.
Anthony Rizzo’s recent struggles at the plate haven’t given Aaron Judge many good pitches to hit of late.
Getty Images

The Yankees are banking on the monster version of Stanton again showing up in the playoffs. He homered in back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday, perhaps finally breaking out of a brutal slump that has plagued him since he returned from an Achilles injury. In the previous 27 games, Stanton had hit .140 with four home runs, 42 strikeouts, 12 walks and a .502 OPS. Stanton historically has been a force in the postseason: In 18 career playoff games, he owns a 1.108 OPS with nine home runs.

LeMahieu also has struggled since returning from the injured list, and he’s admitted his toe issue won’t be 100 percent the rest of the way. At his best, LeMahieu is an on-base machine and keeps the lineup turning over around Judge. Though he was 2-for-9 with a walk in his first three games back since returning from the IL, he showed some signs of shaking off the rust with a 2-for-3 performance (with a walk) in Texas Tuesday night.

Judge’s prolonged chase for the home run record — and opponents’ increasing avoidance of pitching to him — revealed just how important the rest of the Yankees lineup is to their postseason ambitions.

The Yankees won’t go as far as Judge will take them. They’ll go as far as the rest of their lineup does.

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Catching up on Saturdays

Georgia head coach Kirby Smith gets ready to take his team on the field during a SEC conference game between Georgia Bulldogs and Missouri held on Saturday OCT 01, 2022 at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium in Columbia MO.
Kirby Smart has his defending national champion Georgia team in position to win the national title again.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The first five weeks of the college football season were revealing.

New coaches have attempted to impose their styles on storied programs. Struggling juggernauts have made ruthless decisions. Traditional powers have reaffirmed their stature.

With five weeks in the books and the calendar turning to October and the thick of the conference schedule, let’s take a look at the biggest storylines dominating college football.

They were who we thought we were

The traditional fixtures at the top of college football have cruised as expected, powered by stars leading the way in the Heisman Trophy race.

No. 1 Alabama (5-0) survived a brief scare against Arkansas after quarterback Bryce Young exited with a shoulder injury, which ranks as their greatest concern at the moment. Young may have to miss games as the Crimson Tide enter the most daunting part of their schedule: vs. Texas A&M, at Tennessee, vs. Mississippi State. If there was ever a moment Alabama — which has redshirt freshman Jalen Milroe as Young’s backup — was vulnerable, it would be right now. Defending national champion Georgia (5-0) slid to No. 2 in the rankings after a wobbly 26-22 win over unranked Missouri this weekend.

Bryce Young #9 of the Alabama Crimson Tide throws a pass against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the first half of the game at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 24, 2022 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Bryce Young’s shoulder injury has raised some questions about whether Alabama can remain No. 1 as they face their most challenging stretch of the schedule.
Getty Images

No. 3 Ohio State (5-0) and No. 4 Michigan (5-0) have dominated from the top of the Big Ten. Buckeyes star quarterback CJ Stroud has built on his breakout sophomore year with a sensational start to his junior season, keeping the Ohio State offense humming along. Despite losing Aidan Hutchinson and other players to the NFL, Michigan’s defense has picked up right where it left off last season.

After a disappointing season both personally and for the team, DJ Uiagalelei and Clemson have rebounded in emphatic fashion. A threat both through the air and on the ground, Uiajalelei is in the Heisman conversation as he starts to live up to his billing as a five-star recruit.

Jim Leonhard gets his chance

Many will call it harsh, skeptical of a relatively new athletic director looking to make his mark on a program. Others will feel it’s long-overdue, the signs having pointed this way for a while now.

Regardless, the Wisconsin Badgers surprised everyone when they fired head coach Paul Chryst on Monday following the team’s blowout loss to Illinois on Saturday that dropped the team’s record to 2-3. Chryst took a reduced $11 million buyout, per multiple reports.

Wisconsin defensive coach Jim Leonhard looks up at the replay during the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium on October 02, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. Michigan defeated Wisconsin 38-17.
After devloping one of the nation’s better defenses at Wisconsin, Jim Leonhard will try to rebuild a program that has struggled to keep pace in the Big Ten.
Getty Images

The team now turns to defensive coordinator and beloved alum Jim Leonhard, the long-anticipated successor who now gets his chance to earn the job after being named the interim coach for the rest of the season. A former walk-on turned star safety and punt returner, Leonhard led the nation with 11 interceptions in 2002 as a sophomore and led the Big Ten with 443 punt return yards in 2004 as a senior. After going undrafted, Leonhard played 10 seasons in the NFL with the Bills, Ravens, Jets, Broncos and Browns.

Leonhard raised the Badgers defense — which has struggled this season — to elite levels in his first five seasons as defensive coordinator, overseeing a unit that ranked top five in the nation both in total defense and scoring defense four times. It prompted ample job offers elsewhere, but Leonhard waited patiently in Madison seemingly for this very moment. Most notably, he turned down the Packers’ defensive coordinator position this past offseason.

Chryst leaves as the Badgers’ third-winningest coach (67-26 record) and with multiple successful trips to New Year’s Six bowl games. But the program has taken steps backward the past two seasons, failing to reach double-digit wins or to win the Big Ten West division either year. Critically, the Badgers lost to despised rival Minnesota at the end of last season, and were just embarrassed at home by an Illinois team led by former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. Can’t do that.

The biggest job opening in the country

Nebraska’s version of Leonard had his long-awaited opportunity end early in the season. After he helped turn around UCF’s program, Nebraska hired Scott Frost, who starred at quarterback for the Cornhuskers for two seasons, to help awaken one of the sport’s sleeping giants. His tenure ended just three games into his fifth season with a disastrous 16-31 record. The final strike was a 45-42 loss at home to Georgia Southern.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost walks off the field after the team's loss to Georgia Southern during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb.
Lauded as a potential savior when first hired by Nebraska, Scott Frost was fired three games into a tenure that saw him win only 16 games in less than five years.

Now one of the biggest jobs in college football is available again. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph has gone 1-1 since taking over and will get consideration, but this is a program likely positioning to hire the biggest names that could become available.

If things don’t work out with on-the-hot-seat Panthers coach Matt Rhule, could he make a big move back to college? Could Bill O’Brien, Alabama’s offensive coordinator and a former Texans and Penn State head coach, see Nebraska as a way back to the top? Could Matt Campbell, the fast-rising Iowa State coach, finally make a long-expected move to a higher-profile gig? Does Lance Leipold, Division III UW-Whitewater legend and the current Kansas head coach, see the opening as a career-changer? Could Chryst stay in the Big Ten and take over a rival? Urban Meyer’s name always looms. All eyes remain on Nebraska’s head coach opening.

That’s why they play the games

Miami won the offseason, shaking up its athletic department and coaching staff after years of mediocrity.

They hired Mario Cristobal, a former Hurricanes star lineman who enjoyed success in charge of Oregon, as head coach. He immediately produced a recruiting boom (helped by big-bucks NIL deals), and prompted expectations of a changed culture and a national power restored atop college football’s hierarchy.

Coupled with Cristobal’s arrival, the return of quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who burst on the scene after taking over last season and was projected as a potential 2023 first-round NFL draft pick, made Miami a popular pick to finish atop the ACC.

Tyler Van Dyke #9 of the Miami Hurricanes attempts a pass during the first half against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at Hard Rock Stadium on September 24, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Considered a Heisman Trophy hopeful before the season, Tyler Van Dyke has quarterbacked the Hurricanes to a disappointing 2-2 start.
Getty Images

Well, it’s a good thing headlines don’t determine outcomes.

Miami sits at 2-2 with losses to Texas A&M and a shocking 45-31 defeat to Middle Tennessee, whom they paid $1.54 million for the pleasure. Van Dyke was benched against Middle Tennessee, and he has completed just 59.3 percent of his passes while throwing four touchdown passes and three interceptions. His stock seemingly has fallen off a cliff.

Coming off a bye week, Cristobal claimed he would stick with Van Dyke as the starting quarterback, but the team’s preseason momentum has already crashed into reality.

Big names at new places

The Lincoln Riley era at USC has gotten off to a perfect start as the Trojans have cruised to a 5-0 start. Riley bolted Oklahoma for USC and a reported $110 million contract, and has barely stepped a foot wrong in his nascent tenure. Neither has quarterback Caleb Williams, who has launched himself into the Heisman conversation. Williams, who followed Riley from the Sooners to the Trojans as a transfer, has completed 67.3 percent of his passes with 1,402 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and just one interception. He’s added 144 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Brian Kelly, who left Notre Dame for LSU and a $90 million contract, has steadied the Tigers after an opening-week loss to Florida State that featured late-game shambolics on special teams. Since then, LSU has rattled off four straight wins, including most recently a road victory at Auburn.

LSU head coach Brian Kelly blows his whistle before an NCAA college football game against Florida State in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022.
After beginning his tenure with a surprising loss to Florida State, Brian Kelly has started showing why LSU gave him a $90 million deal to leave Notre Dame.

And Kelly’s replacement in South Bend, Marcus Freeman, has righted Notre Dame after an early-season disaster. Notre Dame opened the season with losses to Ohio State and Marshall, but has rebounded with wins over Cal and North Carolina.

The myth of the Mets’ biggest strength

Lightning has struck twice. The Mets’ October hopes rely on it striking a third time — and more times after that.

After shifting the rotation and lining up the two aces for last weekend’s critical Braves series, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer came up lacking, delivering uninspiring outings in the first two losses of a sweep that saw the Mets thud out of first place.

The Mets’ ability to contend for a title contention pivots on the fulcrum of deGrom and Scherzer, both healthy and pitching on back-to-back days in the biggest of games. That certainly can still happen, but if it does, it will be a rare occurrence.

Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer
The Mets’ playoff hopes may depend on Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer delivering the kind of performances in back-to-back games they often have not this season.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The two stud pitchers have just twice this season delivered back-to-back Mets wins during their starts. The first time, on Aug. 6 and 7, came amid deGrom’s return from the IL for his first major league outing in more than a year. He tossed 5 ⅔ innings and surrendered two earned runs in a win over the Braves, the day after Scherzer had hurled seven shutout innings. On Sept. 18 and 19, deGrom gave up three earned runs in five innings pitched in a win over the Pirates followed by Scherzer (in his own return from an IL stint) pitching six no-hit innings in a win over the Brewers.

With the Mets now ticketed for the wild-card round after the Braves secured the NL East Tuesday night, MLB’s new playoff format requires the deGrom-Scherzer back-to-back dream to become reality to sustain any serious playoff contention.

While they hope Starling Marte can return and provide a needed jolt to the lineup, the Braves series made it clear the Mets will only go as far as their aces take them. DeGrom and Scherzer likely will be lined up back-to-back in the postseason. It might be what Mets fans have dreamed of since Scherzer put pen to paper on his Mets contract, but so far it’s remained right there — in dreams.

Now, in the biggest games, they have the opportunity to bring those dreams into the real world. The Mets are banking on it.

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