NEW YORK — Four feet separated Aaron Judge from deliciously making history on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, the slugger’s ninth-inning drive exploding off his bat and soaring toward the legends’ Monument Park lair. Perhaps, on a warmer evening, the ball would have landed close to Roger Maris’ retired No. 9. We’ll never know.
Because Judge’s fly ball ran out of steam, it was instead Josh Donaldson who sealed a meaningful Yankees victory, providing the consolation prize for those who ached to see Judge hit his 61st homer. Donaldson’s walk-off RBI single in the 10th powered a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox, clinching the Bombers’ place in the 2022 postseason.
“It’s not over yet, but the chance that we get the opportunity to play some postseason baseball is going to be fun,” Donaldson said. “I thought Judgie had it with a homer, but it was nice to be able to come through for the team.”
The Yankees are a playoff club for the sixth consecutive year — or, to put that in context, a streak that extends through each of Judge’s full seasons. They’ve reached postseason 24 of the past 28 years, and Aaron Boone is the first manager to punch a playoff ticket in each of his first five seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“You never want to take it for granted,” Boone said. “We’re in the dance, and we’ve got a chance now.”
Simply clinching a postseason berth has never been a goal for this team, which has targeted an American League East title as its objective since the first day of spring. The Yanks’ magic number for the division is six over the Blue Jays, and as such, their clubhouse celebration was more of a muted acknowledgment.
Donaldson received the team’s gold-plated, wrestling-style championship belt, indicative of that night’s most valuable contributor. The veteran closed his remarks by telling his teammates: “Welcome back to the playoffs.”
“There was a lot of hard work over the course of the season to get to this point,” Judge said. “But I think you can ask anybody in this room — the job’s not finished.”
Oh, but it could have been a magical moment, destined for a yankeography episode and schmaltzy music borrowed from “The Natural” soundtrack. One big swing from equaling Maris’ 61-year-old American League record for home runs in a single season, Judge walked in three of his first four plate appearances, hearing fans loudly jeer the pitchers who dared not to groove cookies down the middle.
Judge had already offered a reminder of why he should be the AL’s Most Valuable Player in the top of the ninth, firing a seed to second base from the right-field wall that cut down Tommy Pham attempting to stretch a single into a double.
“You take him off our team,” Donaldson said, “and we’re probably not sitting in the position we’re in now.”
Judge was showing patience at the plate once more in the bottom of the ninth, working the count to 2-2 against Matt Barnes. The Boston right-hander tried a 95.8 mph fastball that caught too much of the plate in the upper half of the strike zone. Judge barreled it – a cannon blast coming off his bat at 113 mph – thrilling a crowd of 43,123 who remained standing throughout each of his plate appearances.
Judge dropped his bat and trotted at three-quarters speed, hopeful it might reach the netting over the monuments. Center fielder Kiké Hernández raced back, back, then stopped, his cleats firmly planted upon the warning track. The ball dropped into Hernández’s glove, and an entire city seemingly groaned in unison.
“Just got underneath it a little bit,” Judge said. “It was a pretty windy night. I was hoping it was blowing out. Just missed it.”
Said Boone: “I thought it would’ve been pretty showy to drop it off at Monument Park out there.”
Seeds for the Yankees’ Major League-leading 16th walk-off win were planted early. Though Judge remained hitless in his career against Michael Wacha (0-for-15, 10 strikeouts), Kyle Higashioka lifted a fifth-inning sacrifice fly and Giancarlo Stanton crushed a two-run homer off the right-hander in the sixth.
Jameson Taillon turned in a brilliant start, scattering four hits and striking out eight over six scoreless innings. Clarke Schmidt had a shaky outing, allowing a Triston Casas solo home run and a pinch-hit three-run homer to Reese McGuire that put Boston in front, 4-3.
Stanton sparked an eighth-inning rally with a leadoff single. Pinch-runner Tim Locastro stole second, advanced on a groundout and scored on Harrison Bader’s sacrifice fly to tie the game at 4.
There was plenty to see; just not what we’re all waiting for.
“When ever [Judge] comes up,” Taillon said, “everyone runs outside to watch the at-bat. No one wants to miss it. We know it’s going to happen at some point.”