A tense and unusual quiet fell over Yankee Stadium at a time that, under normal circumstances, would have produced thunderous noise. The game was tied in the ninth inning as the Yankees faced the Boston Red Sox, their most fierce rival, and the slugger everyone had come to see was stepping into the batter’s box.
With the batter, Aaron Judge, needing only one more home run to tie Roger Maris’s American League record of 61 in a single season, a crowd of more than 43,000 seemed to be holding its breath.
As Judge peered out toward Matt Barnes, a Red Sox reliever, the fans stood and leaned forward, too, concentrating so hard in the moment it was as if they forgot to cheer.
“I noticed it,” Alex Cora, the manager of the Red Sox said of the lack of noise. “I mean, everybody noticed it. It got very quiet on every pitch.”
Many of the fans were holding their camera phones up to record what they hoped would turn into a historic moment, perhaps lending to the eerie lack of applause, especially in the area behind home plate. But then Judge uncoiled his mighty swing on a high, 96-mile-per-hour fastball, sending the ball soaring up into the air and deep toward center field.
The silence briefly shifted into a roar before falling quiet once again when Kiké Hernández, the Boston center fielder, settled under the ball. He caught it on the warning track mere feet from Monument Park, where a plaque honors Maris along with all the other Yankees greats.
“I thought it would have been pretty showy to drop it off at Monument Park out there,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said of the long drive.
It was not to be, and Judge, who was 0 for 2 with a strikeout and three walks, frustratingly remained one homer behind Maris’s coveted mark. But an inning after Judge came up just short, Josh Donaldson slashed a single to left field, scoring Marwin Gonzalez and giving the Yankees a dramatic 5-4 win. It was the their eighth win in ten games, and with it the team clinched at least a wild-card in this year’s postseason.
With Toronto losing to Tampa Bay on Thursday, the Yankees’ lead over the Blue Jays in the American League East grew to seven and a half games with 13 to play, yet their postgame celebration was fairly muted.
“We have the ultimate goal of winning our division and setting ourselves up for the postseason,” said Judge, who added that he did not think he had hit that ball off Barnes well enough for it to go out. “But this is step number one of many steps to come, that’s for sure.”
Before the game, Cora had promised that the Red Sox would challenge Judge, saying they would not look to walk him intentionally, or pitch around him, either. But the fans certainly felt that was the case in the first inning, when Michael Wacha, Boston’s veteran starter, walked Judge on four pitches, eliciting sustained booing from the crowd.
Judge came into the game 0 for 14 against Wacha, with 9 strikeouts, so Wacha had every reason to feel confident he could get Judge out, even if the Yankee slugger is leading the American League in batting average, at .316.
Wacha walked Judge again in the third inning, leading to more booing, but both Cora and Wacha dismissed the notion that it had been intentional, blaming it on Wacha struggling with his mechanics, which led to problems with control.
“Definitely not,” Wacha said of whether the walks were by design. “I do not like leadoff walks, I don’t like hitting guys. That’s kind of my M.O. on pitching well, is attacking guys.”
Fans were skeptical, and their frustration grew with each ball thrown out of the zone. Cora noted that Judge, an all-around talent at the plate, is an expert at laying off bad pitches.
Cora’s declaration of intent before that game, that they would pitch to Judge, was finally borne out in the fifth, when Wacha went hard at the slugger with runners on first and second and one out. Judge struck out swinging at a 1-2 changeup. It was the 10th time in 15 career at-bats that Wacha had sent Judge back to the dugout that way.
In the seventh, John Schreiber, a Boston reliever, gave up a leadoff double to Kyle Higashioka, which meant Judge would come to the plate with first base open and the Red Sox leading, 4-3. It was no time for bravado. The prudent thing to do was to walk Judge, and Schreiber did so on five cautious pitches.
Barnes took over in the ninth and faced Judge with the bases empty and one out, saying later that he never considered pitching around him.
“With all due respect to Aaron Judge, and he’s a great person and he’s having an unbelievable season,” Barnes said, “I’m trying to get him out. I frankly don’t care about history. We have a ballgame to win and if I give up a homer, the ballgame is over.”
Judge, whose pursuit of Maris has captivated baseball, did not contribute any hits, but he made a terrific defensive play with the score tied in the ninth inning, demonstrating his all-around skill on the baseball field. Tommy Pham singled to right and made the mistake of challenging Judge’s arm by trying to stretch it into a double. Judge corralled the ball and made a laser throw to second, which Cora noted waas the kind of play made by a player hoping to win the Most Valuable Player Award.
The teams are scheduled to meet three more times at Yankee Stadium, and based on Thursday’s encounter, Judge may see a pitch or two to hit, but may not. Boston is at the end of a poor season in which it will not make the playoffs, yet Cora insisted the team is still trying to win. That means challenging Judge when the time is right, and being careful when it is not.
“The game was on the line, and we pitched to him,” Cora said almost defiantly. “This is not about being cocky or, ‘This is what we do.’ But this is what we do, and he’s really good at laying off pitches.”
Tyler Kepner and Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.