We all know the Yankees want desperately, perhaps improbably, to check the box that has loomed over this franchise for 12 long years, their poor, uncomplaining fans suffering stoically through a decade-plus of World Series-free baseball.
In the team’s first big step toward that goal Sunday, its most valuable player chose an optimal time to check a box of his own.
Heck of a moment for Aaron Judge to notch his first career walk-off hit, eh?
Judge’s one-out, ninth-inning single scored his pal Tyler Wade from third base, catapulting the Yankees over the Rays in a 1-0 thriller and into the AL wild-card game. They’ll face the Red Sox Tuesday night at Fenway Park with ace Gerrit Cole on the mound, aiming to oust their historic rivals so they can advance to the AL Division Series and take on their younger rivals, these Rays.
Their best reason for hope is Judge, whose hit Sunday capped arguably his most impressive regular season, if not necessarily his best statistically, with his personal milestone.
“It really wasn’t in my head,” Judge said of his zero walk-offs entering the contest, “but I was glad I was able to get that done.”
Man, did the Yankees need that after dropping the weekend’s first two games, losing control of Tuesday’s home-field advantage in the process, and producing four base runners, none reaching scoring position, in the first eight innings. The lefty swinger Rougned Odor, a most unlikely spark — starting at third base only because of DJ LeMahieu’s injury absence — led off the bottom of the ninth with a humpback line drive off Rays southpaw Josh Fleming, and his pinch-runner Tyler Wade came through huge when he tagged up on Gleyber Torres’ long fly out to right-center field and advanced to second base. Anthony Rizzo followed with a base hit stroked so hard, and so on target to Tampa Bay right fielder Randy Arozarena, that Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin had to hold up the speedy Wade at third base as Rizzo advanced to second on the throw home.
Up stepped Judge, who, as per The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, had recorded eight go-ahead RBIs in the eighth inning or later since Aug. 1. Just none of them walk-offs. Rays manager Kevin Cash called upon the tough Kittredge.
“You just get a feeling that he’s going to do something special,” Chad Green said of Judge.
“Just try to keep it simple,” Judge said of his approach. “Just try to get something up and put something in play.”
He worked the count to 2-and-2, swinging through a 1-and-0 slider and 1-and-1 sinker, and then, with the Rays infield drawn in, he barreled up a slider at his knees and executed a bit of a trick shot, the ball striking the back of the mound before going to Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, who valiantly threw the ball home yet couldn’t catch Wade in time. The Yankees, celebrating on the field, survived their extreme in-season turbulence to land at their first stop, their fans chanting “MVP!” in Judge’s honor (he won’t win the AL award, but he deserved the love).
“A great regular season for Aaron Judge capped off fittingly,” Aaron Boone said.
“That’s my guy,” Wade said. “It’s kind of crazy for all the milestones he’s completed that that’s his first career walk-off. But that’s the guy you want up in that situation. He’s got a slow heartbeat right there. And I couldn’t be happier for him, sending us to the playoffs.
“I know the grind of the season and I know how much he cares for this team and this city. For him to be able to do that in that situation, it’s big-time.”
The Yankees wouldn’t have sniffed the big-time of the 2021 postseason if not for Judge staying upright (besides his COVID case), clocking 148 games and putting up a fantastic .287/.373/.544 slash line with 39 homers. While he didn’t approach the 52 homers he smoked in his rookie campaign of 2017, this one felt like a more complete and consistent campaign. And now Judge has the chance to check another box, one that would really please his club’s ultra-patient supporters: An October for the ages.
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