Aaron Judge is the greatest show on earth, so of course he was going to deliver a memorable piece of theater in the bottom of the ninth, with a swing of his bat that made the entire city stop, and gave new meaning to the order “all rise.”
Everybody had to rise and watch and wait for history to land on the far side of the center-field wall. But first, Judge had a point to prove in the top of the inning. He gathered the bounce in the right-field corner, and showed the world why he is so much more than an outsized strongman who launches baseballs to the moon.
He threw a perfect strike on the fly to Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the ultimate frozen rope, and what would have been Tommy Pham’s leadoff double was reduced to the first out. Judge was supposed to tie and possibly break a home run record Thursday night, and he helped break the Red Sox with his arm instead.
He is going to beat you with doubles and a walk here, and with three walks and one absurd throw there. But Aaron Judge is going to help his team beat you one way or the other, even when he doesn’t do what the crowd paid to see him do.
No. 99’s Yankees returned to the playoffs with this 5-4 victory punctuated by Josh Donaldson’s winning hit in the 10th. “We’re in The Dance and we got a chance now,” said manager Aaron Boone.
Their best chance is embodied by Judge, who didn’t let his “failure” to even match Roger Maris’ magical 61-homer season in 1961 stop him from trying to win a game an entirely different way from his old turf, right field, the home office of another big man who once hit 60 homers in a season, a guy by the name of Babe.
Until Judge tried to win it the old-fashioned way — the Ruthian way — from the batter’s box in the ninth.
With one out and nobody on in a 4-4 game, and with the Stadium fans alternating between jet-engine loud and confessional-booth quiet in between pitches, Judge sent a 2-2 four-seamer high and deep into the dark night. The crack of the bat, the majestic flight path to dead center, the roar of the crowd, and the call of the TV announcer made the whole thing perfect.
Except for the ending. The 404-foot shot came up less than a half-dozen feet short.
“What a great at-bat,” Boone said. “I thought it would’ve been pretty showy to drop it off at Monument Park there.”
Judge knew that he had gotten a bit underneath it, and that it wasn’t going to make it in the cool, windy conditions. So what would’ve been one of the most dramatic homers in Yankee history suddenly became one of the most heart-stopping fly balls anyone has seen.
It didn’t help the home team win this game, but damnit, that throw from right field sure did.
“That’s what MVPs do,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said.
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Judge had spent a lot of quality time in center, and yet he handled Pham’s shot against the wall as if he’d played every game this year in right. He settled under the high hop. He didn’t rush the play. He put perfect backspin on the throw.
“You can tell he’s done it a million times,” Boone said.
Judge wasn’t about to accept attaboys for doing his job. “I was just trying to make a play like anybody else,” he said.
Truth is, Judge has never been only about chasing home run records. He entered the day hitting 74 points higher than the average MLB batting average. He steals bases. He accepts walks. He plays center field at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds. He works on his craft in right field, where he will spend the balance of his prime.
“He does everything great,” Donaldson said. “He’s a great ballplayer. He affects the game in so many ways.”
Of course, Judge was dying to give the fans everything they wanted. Unfortunately, Michael Wacha is a smart and resourceful pitcher who has won 60 percent of his career starts, and who has dominated Judge in their career matchups. Wacha walked Judge twice (the first time on four pitches) and mixed in a couple of juicy pitches to hit — a 2-2 four-seamer in his second at-bat, and a 1-1 cutter in his third at-bat — before striking him out on a changeup.
Red Sox reliever John Schreiber issued Judge his third walk in the seventh, before Anthony Rizzo grounded into a double play. Hours earlier, Cora had claimed the visitors had planned to take the fight to the heavyweight champ. “We have to attack him the way we feel we can,” Cora said of Judge, “and the game will dictate what we do.”
And yet in the end, the visiting strategy was clear — nibble around Judge a lot, surprise him with a few manhood challenges, accept the heavy booing from the fans as the price of doing business, and hope the eventual walks set up a series of double plays.
The plan almost worked. Almost.
The Yankees won because Aaron Judge reminded everyone that he is the best player in the sport, with or without the long ball.