NEW YORK — A foot or two separated Aaron Judge from making glorious history Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, the slugger’s ninth-inning drive exploded from his bat and floated into the legend’s Monument Park lair. Perhaps on a warmer evening the ball would have landed close to Roger Maris’ retired number 9. We will never know.
As Judge’s fly ball ran out, it was instead Josh Donaldson who sealed a meaningful Yankees win, earning the consolation prize for those yearning to see Judge hit his 61st homer. Donaldson’s walk-off RBI single in the 10th secured a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox, taking the Bombers’ place in the 2022 postseason.
“It’s not over yet, but the chance that we will have the chance to play baseball after the season 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 straight year — or, to put that in context, a series that spans each of Judge’s full seasons. They have reached 24 of the past 28 years, and Aaron Boone is the first manager to score 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 have a chance now.”
Simply grabbing a post-season berth has never been a goal for this team, which has been aiming for an American League East title since the first day of spring. The Yanks’ magic number for the division is six over the Blue Jays, and as such their party at the clubhouse was more of a muted acknowledgment.
Donaldson received the team’s gold-plated wrestling-style championship belt, indicative of that evening’s most valuable contribution. The veteran concluded his comments by telling his teammates, “Welcome back to the playoffs.”
“We’ve worked hard over the course of the season to get to this point,” Judge said. “But I guess you can ask anyone in this room — the job isn’t done yet.”
Oh, but it could have been a magical moment, destined for a… Yankeeography episode and schmaltzy music borrowed from “The Natural” soundtrack. A big stroke of equaling Maris’ 61-year-old American League record for home runs in one season, Judge walked in three of his first four at bats, as fans loudly booed the pitchers who didn’t dare to groove cookies in the middle.
Judge had already reminded him why he should be the AL’s Most Valuable Player in the top of the ninth, by shooting a seed to second base from the right field wall, causing Tommy Pham to hit a single that attempted a double to make.
“You’re taking him off our team,” Donaldson said, “and we’re probably not in the position we’re in right now.”
Judge again showed patience at the plate in the bottom of the ninth, working the count to 2-2 against Matt Barnes. The Boston right-hander attempted a 95.8 mph fastball that caught too much of the plate in the top half of the strike zone. Judge let it run — a cannon shot came from his bat at 113 mph — and entranced a crowd of 43,123 who stood at the plate during each of his performances.
Judge dropped his club and trotted at three-quarters speed, hoping it would reach the net over the monuments. Center fielder Kiké Hernández raced back, back and then stopped, his cleats planted firmly on the warning lane. The ball fell into Hernández’s glove and an entire city groaned seemingly in unison.
“I just kind of went under,” Judge said. “It was quite a windy night. I hoped it would blow out. Just missed it.”
Boone said, “I thought it would have been pretty ostentatious to drop it off there in Monument Park.”
Seeds for the Yankees’ major league-leading 16th walk-off win were planted early. While Judge remained hitless in his career against Michael Wacha (0-for-15, 10 strikeouts), Kyle Higashioka lifted a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning and Giancarlo Stanton crushed a two-run homerun off the righthander in the sixth.
Jameson Taillon got off to a brilliant start, hitting four basehits and striking out eight in six scoreless innings. Clarke Schmidt had a shaky performance, giving a Triston Casas solo homerun and a pinch-hit three-run homerun for Reese McGuire that gave Boston the lead, 4-3.
Stanton led to a rally in the eighth inning with a leadoff single. Pinch-runner Tim Locastro stole second, moved on a groundout and scored on Harrison Bader’s sacrifice fly to make it 4th.
There was plenty to see; just not what we’re all waiting for.
“Whenever” [Judge] arrives,” Taillon said, “everyone rushes out to watch the at bat. Nobody wants to miss it. We know it’s going to happen someday.”