NEW YORK -- The moments immediately following Brett Gardner's third career walk-off homer morphed into some bizarro version of a Yankees whodunit, as Aaron Judge stomped toward the dugout holding a hand over his mouth, having been clipped by an errant batting helmet near home plate.
A Yankees spokesman said that Judge chipped a tooth while celebrating the team's 6-5, 11-inning victory over the Rays, but that he would not miss any playing time. Gardner said he was blissfully unaware of that fact while the rest of his teammates savored their sixth win in seven games.
"It wasn't my fault," Gardner said. "I threw it on the ground and then I think he had it in his hand. Somebody bumped into him and it hit him in the face. He's too big to get hurt by something like that. I think he'll be all right."
Even an emergency call to the dentist for the American League's leading Rookie of the Year Award candidate could not disrupt the jovial mood for the Yankees, who posted their 54th victory of the season to close within a half-game of the division-leading Red Sox.
Someone showed Todd Frazier a looping GIF of Judge getting clipped by the helmet, and the veteran quickly identified Clint Frazier as a potential suspect, noting that the helmet had been picked up off the ground. The rookie swiftly pleaded his case, maintaining that he had nothing to do with the mishap while hoping that he wouldn't have to pay for Judge's dental work.
• Yanks' walk-off celebration claims a victim: Judge's tooth
"We've got good vibes going on," Todd Frazier said. "Everybody's coming in here and you can feel it. I've been on winning teams before, and when you come to the ballpark, it's all smiles. Guys are joking around a lot. When you win, good stuff happens."
Gardner's ninth-inning triple off Alex Colome helped them get there, followed by a lucky grounder off Gary Sanchez's bat that prompted infielders Adeiny Hechavarria and Timothy Beckham to freeze. A solo blast into the seats off Andrew Kittredge ended it, marking Gardner's career-high 18th homer.
"He's the heart and soul," said Yankees left-hander Carsten Sabathia. "He's the jokester, he gets everybody going. He's a big part of this team and he has been for a long time. It's great to see him having a good year."
"He's the leadoff man for a reason," added Clint Frazier. "He goes out there and runs the bases aggressive. He put us in a position to win the game right there. Our depth in the lineup is top to bottom and it's fun to play with."
This spring, Yankees manager Joe Girardi took Gardner aside and asked the 33-year-old to set his focus on one simple goal: scoring 100 runs. No matter how he did that, the reasoning went, everything else should fall into place.
Gardner now has 66 runs scored with 62 games left on the schedule, and despite that Grapefruit League chat, Girardi said that his value to the team cannot be measured by one simple statistic.
"He is an energetic guy that stirs the pot, that keeps the guys loose," Girardi said. "He's a leader, plays hard every day. There's just so many different things. To me, Gardy by nature is a fighter. You want fighters on your team."
Sabathia said that he senses that "this team has got something special" in the way that they show up every night, and believes that a good deal of that can be traced back to Gardner, the longest-tenured man in pinstripes.
"We've got a good group of guys. We're having a lot of fun," Gardner said. "A lot of young guys who are really just getting their feet wet in the big leagues, finding out what it's all about. Overall, it's been an exciting couple of months. Hopefully, the next couple of months will be just as exciting."