TORONTO -- Two slugging right fielders taking their swings in Yankees uniforms 61 years apart, one assigned No. 9 and the other sporting a super-sized No. 99. Roger Maris and Aaron Judge are forever linked as legends of this storied franchise, now the only men in its history to hit 61 home runs in a single season.
“It’s an incredible honor to get a chance to be associated with one of the Yankee greats, one of the baseball greats,” Judge said. “To be enshrined with them forever, words can’t describe it. That’s one thing that’s so special about the Yankee organization, all the guys that came before us and paved the way, played the game the right way.”
Judge did not hesitate after connecting with Mayza’s full-count, belt-high sinker, dropping his bat and taking quick steps out of the box as he tracked the flight of his 117.4 mph drive, which took only 3.8 seconds to land a Statcast-projected 394 feet from home plate. It was Judge’s hardest-hit homer of the season.
The coveted ball -- said to be worth as much as $2 million, by one estimate -- was nearly caught by two fans seated in the front row of Section 137, which overlooks Toronto's bullpen. The ball smacked into a wall just below them and came to a stop near the bullpen mound, where it was retrieved by pitching coach Matt Buschmann and passed along to Toronto closer Jordan Romano.
“She’s been with me through it all,” Judge said. “From the Little League days, getting me ready for school, taking me to my first couple of practices and games, being there for my first professional game, my debut and now getting a chance to be here for this -- this is something special, and we’re not done yet.”
The Yankees spilled out of the dugout to congratulate Judge after the home run, which came in his 35th plate appearance since slugging No. 60 on Sept. 20 off the Pirates’ Wil Crowe at Yankee Stadium. That blast was witnessed by Roger Maris Jr., who packed a passport to be in attendance for No. 61.
Maris embraced Patty Judge immediately after the blast, then later exchanged greetings with Judge, quipping: “Why did you wait so long?”
“Sitting at 60 for a while there with 'The Babe' was nice,” Judge said. “Getting the chance to now sit at 61 with another Yankee right fielder that hit 61 home runs, [won] MVPs, world champions, it’s pretty cool.”
Said manager Aaron Boone: “61; I’ve known about that number for my entire life. It’s one thing that makes our sport a little more special than the others -- the numbers.”
Aside from its historical importance, Judge’s homer put his team back on top after Gerrit Cole surrendered three runs in the sixth inning. Cole retired the first 15 Blue Jays, striking out four batters to equal a different beloved Yankees single-season record -- Ron Guidry’s franchise mark of 248 strikeouts, set in 1978.
“I think it’s more special because of what Aaron did tonight, to be honest,” Cole said.
There was some question as to whether Judge would be in Wednesday's lineup after the Yankees clinched the AL East on Tuesday, spraying bubbly in a wet and wild clubhouse celebration. He stamped that out quickly, telling Boone: “I want to play.” Boone agreed, slotting Judge in as the designated hitter.
With seven games remaining, the 30-year-old Judge is competing for the Majors’ first Triple Crown since the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera paced the AL in batting average, homers and RBIs in 2012. Judge’s .313 batting average through Wednesday is percentage points ahead of the Twins' Luis Arraez while Boston's Xander Bogaerts is batting .309.
Judge is just the fifth Major League player (eighth time) to hit at least 61 home runs in a single season, joining a group that includes Barry Bonds (73 in 2001), Mark McGwire (70 in 1998; 65 in ‘99), Sammy Sosa (66 in ’98, 64 in ’01; 63 in ‘99) and Maris (61 in ’61).
Notably, Judge has reached 61 in a season when average home run production has been far below his level. The Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber has 42 homers, which ranks second in the Majors to Judge’s total. Mike Trout’s 38 homers rank second in the AL.
Boone has called Judge’s campaign “an all-time great season,” akin to historic performances by legends like Ruth, Jim Brown in the NFL or Wayne Gretzky in the NHL. Yet Judge insists that he has not changed his approach one iota since Opening Day; to hear him explain it, this was all meant to be.
“My game plan is what got me to this point,” Judge said. “I never really thought it would be fair to my teammates or the Yankees to be up here trying to chase a record. My job is to go out there and be the best hitter I can be.”