NEW YORK — Four feet apart Aaron Judge of deliciously making history Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, the slugger’s ninth-inning drive exploded off his bat and soared toward the Monument Park den of legends. Perhaps, on a warmer evening, the ball landed close to the retired No. 9 of Roger Maris. We will never know.
As Judge’s volleyball ran out, it was instead Josh Donaldson which sealed a significant Yankee victory, providing the consolation prize for those who were aching to see Judge hit his 61st homer. Donaldson’s walk-off RBI single in the 10th powered a 5-4 win over the Red Sox, clinching the Bombers’ spot in the 2022 postseason.
“It’s not over yet, but the chance that we get the chance to play some postseason baseball is going to be fun,” Donaldson said. “I thought Judgie had it with a home run, 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 into context, a streak that stretches through each of Judge’s full seasons. They have reached the 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 have a chance now.”
Simply clinching a postseason berth was never a goal for this team, which has targeted an American League East title as its goal since the first day of spring. The Yanks magic number for the division there are six over the Blue Jays, and as such, their clubhouse celebration was more of a silent acknowledgment.
Donaldson received the team’s gold-plated, wrestling-style championship belt, indicative of the night’s most valuable contributor. The veteran closed his remarks by telling his teammates, “Welcome back to the playoffs.”
“It’s been a lot of hard work throughout the season to get to this point,” Judge said. “But I think you can ask anyone in this room — the work is not done.”
Oh, but it could be a magical moment, destined for a Yankee geography episode and schmaltzy music borrowed from “The Natural” soundtrack. One swing away from tying 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 mock the pitchers who dared not line cookies down the middle.
Judge already offered a reminder of why he should be the AL’s Most Valuable Player in the top of the ninth, launching a seed to second base off the right-field wall that cut Tommy Pham trying to stretch a single into a double.
“You take him away from our team,” Donaldson said, “and we’re probably not sitting in the position we’re in right now.”
Judge showed patience at the plate once again 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 threw it — a cannon blast off his bat at 113 mph — thrilling a crowd of 43,123 that remained standing during each of his plate appearances.
Judge dropped his bat and trotted at three-quarter speed, hoping it might reach the net over the monuments. Center fielder Kiké Hernández raced back, back, then stopped, his cleats firmly planted on the warning track. The ball landed in Hernández’s glove, and an entire town seemed to groan in unison.
“Just got under it a little bit,” Judge said. “It was quite a windy night. I was hoping it was blowing. Just missed it.”
Boone said: “I thought it would be pretty eye-catching to drop it off at Monument Park there.”
Seeds for the Yankees’ major league-leading 16th walk-off win were planted early. Although 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 bright start, scattering four hits and striking out eight over six scoreless innings. Clarke Schmidt had a shaky outing, allowing a solo homer to Triston Casas and a pinch-hit three-run homer to Reese McGuire that put Boston ahead, 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 a lot to see; just not what we all expect.
“Whenever [Judge] comes,” Taillon said, “everyone runs outside to watch the at-bat. No one wants to miss it. We know it will happen at some point.”