The Fresno State outfielder, winner of the 2012 TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby, didn’t consider himself a contender going into the event.
Since he had only six career collegiate home runs to his name, it wasn’t hard to blame him.
Judge, a 6-foot-7 sophomore who hit .332 with four homers in 2012 for the Bulldogs, was playing summer league baseball when he got an unexpected call.
“I was actually in the Cape Cod League talking to our media guy back at Fresno State,” he said. “He called me and said, ‘Hey, you got an invite to this home run derby.’ I was like, ‘Home run derby? I only had four home runs all year.’ But it was a blast.”
Before the contest began, each player was introduced over the loudspeaker. The announcer gave their name, school and home run total in 2012. At least that was the case for everyone except Judge.
When it came time for his introduction, the announcer gave his batting average and RBI numbers ... leaving out the power totals.
It seems some were writing him off before the first pitch was even thrown.
But he proceeded to send 16 balls over the left-field wall — 10 more than he had hit in his college career.
So what’s the magic formula behind the sudden power burst?
Judge, even after the display, had few answers.
“I just told Coach to throw it high and hit the barrel,” he said, flashing a disbelieving smile. “I just hoped and they started flying out.”
They did fly out, some farther than others. He bounced his first shot off the top of the left field-wall, watching as it careened into the bullpen. Others he launched over the bullpen entirely, raining baseballs on some of the 22,403 fans inside TD Ameritrade Park.
All this from a guy who came in just hoping to connect on one. After taking a few swings earlier in the day, he wasn’t even sure he could accomplish that.
“During batting practice, I only had one or two,” Judge said. “I was like, ‘OK, I don’t want to embarrass myself out here.’ ”
With nine of 10 outs completed in the final round, Judge had hit only two homers. Virginia Tech’s Tyler Horan, one of the two other finalists, had hit five.
Then something funny happened. Judge kept swinging, and ball after ball kept going .... and going ... and going.
In total, he hit five homers with one out remaining, including the “bonus ball,” which counted as two home runs. His final tally of eight was enough to topple Horan and LSU’s Mason Katz, who hit four.
The homer streak, Judge says, wasn’t a result of his brute power or superior game plan. The Omaha crowd, loud and boisterous, carried him across the finish line.
“I was just in a zone, and the crowd just really started getting into it,” he said. “The crowd probably got this one for me.”
His coach, Ryan Overland, threw the pitches that Judge sent screaming into the left-field seats. He knew that the slugger’s four-homer regular season wasn’t a true indication of his power. He also knew if he didn’t get the ball over the plate, he’d have some explaining to do.
“If we didn’t hit any, there was going to be a lot of people thinking it was probably my fault, because a lot of people have seen him hit a baseball a long way,” Overland said.
LSU’s Katz, who also hit 16 homers but fell short in the final round, couldn’t complain with his third-place finish. After all, he had avoided whiffing in front of thousands of Omaha fans.
“My strategy was to swing hard. It’s the same mentality I have in the games — swing hard in case you hit it,” Katz said. “I luckily didn’t swing and miss tonight. That was my goal.”
But while Katz may have swung harder, Judge connected when it counted. He came in intimidated by his competition. He left with a shiny trophy after surprising even himself.
“I was actually looking up all the guys’ stats, and I saw some of them in the Cape Cod League, and I was like, ‘Wow. These guys can really hit,’ ” he said. “I was hoping to come in here, have a good time, take some BP on the field and see what happens.”
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