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Judge's bookend HRs lead Yanks to extras win

Hicks' clutch blast, Gardner's dagger help extend AL East lead to 8 1/2
@Sportsgal25
July 6, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- Because Aaron Judge got the Yankees started off on the right foot on Friday night, he probably felt obligated to put a bow on the night as well. Judge was the alpha and the omega during New York’s 8-4 win over the Rays at Tropicana Field, going

ST. PETERSBURG -- Because Aaron Judge got the Yankees started off on the right foot on Friday night, he probably felt obligated to put a bow on the night as well.

Judge was the alpha and the omega during New York’s 8-4 win over the Rays at Tropicana Field, going deep in the first inning and the 11th to mark the ninth multi-homer game of his career. In doing so -- and after Aroldis Chapman escaped the 11th to earn his 24th save after Tampa Bay brought the tying run to the plate -- Judge also helped the Yankees stretch their lead in the American League East to 8 1/2 games and ensured at least a series split against the Rays, their closest division opponent, heading into the All-Star break.

Box score

And Judge provided the boost with all the typical fanfare that surrounds the Yankees’ slugger in pressure situations. Ryne Stanek had just entered the game to pitch the 11th inning when the right fielder smoked the first pitch he saw over the center-field wall to put New York ahead for good.

“My biggest thing was just making sure I got ready early, so I could stay on the heater but also have a chance at the splitter,” Judge said.

Judge has three homers in his past six games and four over his past eight. He’s reached base in eight consecutive games and slashed .407/.529/.889 during that stretch -- and manager Aaron Boone says he thinks the best is yet to come for the 27-year-old.

“I don’t even necessarily think he’s locked in yet and he hit two home runs today,” Boone said. “I think he’s getting close, that’s for sure."

Judge's 11th-inning blast was his ninth homer of the season, and it left his bat at a blistering 116.3 mph, according to Statcast. His knock proved to be the deciding blow, but New York still had some left in the tank. Two outs later, Gleyber Torres singled, Gio Urshela doubled and Brett Gardner sealed the deal with a three-run home run that took all the wind from Tampa Bay’s sails.

The long ball was Gardner’s 13th of the year.

Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka entered Friday’s tilt having fanned 23 Rays over 22 innings (three starts) this season and walked just one. His 0.41 ERA against Tampa Bay coming in was by far the lowest against any of his 2019 opponents. He also entered the contest having not allowed the Rays to score since May 12, a stretch of 17 innings punctuated by a June 17 shutout during which he fanned 10 on 111 pitches.

That scoreless streak ended in the fourth inning Friday, when Nate Lowe went deep to lead off the frame for his first Major League home run. The Yankees’ starter continued undaunted even though Mike Zunino also went deep to lead off the fifth.

“I didn’t have my best stuff; it was kind of a grind,” Tanaka admitted. “Luckily enough, I was able to get to six-plus innings, but there is a little bit of a bitter feeling just having to come out that way in the game, and at the end of the day, giving up four runs.”

Tanaka ran into his first trouble of the season against Tampa Bay in the seventh inning, when a one-out double followed by a walk ended his night. His replacement, Nestor Cortes Jr., hit Austin Meadows with a pitch, then struck out Tommy Pham before a two-run single from Kevin Kiermaier put the Rays ahead, 4-3.

Pinch-hitter Aaron Hicks didn’t let the sour taste linger for long, leading off the eighth with his seventh home run to tie the game and extend his hitting streak to six games. From there, a combination of plucky relief -- led by 2 1/3 scoreless frames from David Hale, who earned the win -- and sharp defense held the fort until Judge could have his final say.

“[The Yankees] have one of the better offenses that I think all of us have ever played against,” Kiermaier said. “They don’t have a weak spot. Our pitchers are going out there trying to get out really quality hitters, and there’s not a break.”

New York is cruising into the break on a high note, having won eight of its past nine games and 16 of 18. The Yankees also moved to a season-high 28 games over .500 and pushed their win streak against Tampa Bay to six games, their longest since Sept. 17, 2014-April 28, 2015.

“It’s awesome,” Hale said. “It’s so amazing to be on a team where they can change that quick. A couple of swings and you’re up by four. It’s really fun to watch.”

Dawn Klemish is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Tampa. Follow her on Twitter @Sportsgal25.