'A privilege': Yanks walk off to clinch WC spot

October 5th, 2021

NEW YORK -- Nothing has seemed to come easily for these rollercoaster Yankees, so it felt appropriate that their playoff destiny hinged upon the outcome of the final regular-season game. Of course it would be decided on the last day, in the last inning, by the last pitch. What else would you have expected?

One swing answered a head-spinning array of questions, pushing the reset button on the Yankees’ season. No Game 163 will be necessary; the Yanks punched their postseason ticket behind the first walk-off hit of ’s career, mobbing the star in the Yankee Stadium outfield to celebrate a 1-0 victory over the Rays on Sunday afternoon.

“You’ve got to embrace it,” Judge said. “That’s what popped into my head: You’ve got to embrace every single moment, every single opportunity. Getting the chance to be playing out there at Yankee Stadium in a game that if you win, you get a chance to go to the postseason? Very few individuals get a chance to say that. That’s a privilege.”

A 92-win campaign secured the Yankees’ fifth consecutive playoff berth and the franchise’s 23rd trip to the postseason in the past 27 years (since 1995). They will put their playoff hopes on the line in the American League Wild Card Game, to be played on Tuesday against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

“It’s relief. It’s joy,” manager Aaron Boone said. “This ride we’ve been on, it hasn’t been easy at all. A lot of people pour a lot to get into this situation. We’ll enjoy this for a few minutes, and then it’s back to work.”

After a battle in which each pitch dripped with importance, revisiting ‘The Rivalry’ should be a natural shift -- especially after the Yanks swept Boston last weekend.

“It’s going to be amazing,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo. “Going there last weekend and playing that big series to get back into the Wild Card position was huge. I feel like when this team’s back is against the wall, we’re putting out our best product.”

The Yanks toasted their achievement with a gleeful celebration in their clubhouse, one that included Bronxie, the adorable turtle that was adopted last month at the suggestion of pitcher Nestor Cortes. A goggled Rougned Odor weaved around the room carrying the tiny reptile between his index finger and thumb, allowing some of the bubbly to splash her shell.

“She’s still good in there,” Odor said. “She’s been giving us a lot of energy. We’ve been talking a lot about the turtle. We’re having fun.”

Odor sparked the Yanks’ ninth-inning rally with a sharp single to center field, yielding to pinch-runner Tyler Wade, who tagged up on a deep flyout. Anthony Rizzo ripped a hit to right field, prompting the Rays to lift left-hander Josh Fleming in favor of right-hander Andrew Kittredge.

With the count 2-2, Judge lashed a slider that tipped off of Kittredge’s glove, trickling to the middle of the infield grass. Second baseman Brandon Lowe whipped the ball to catcher Mike Zunino, but not in time to nab Wade, who dove headfirst and dragged his left palm across home plate.

“I looked at him when I was walking up to the plate,” Judge said. “All I was thinking was, if you just put it in play, I know that man is going to score. He’s got speed and great instincts on the basepaths.”

The intensity of Sunday’s contest was evident in Gio Urshela’s daring sixth-inning catch, electrifying a Stadium crowd of 40,409 as the shortstop tumbled into the visiting dugout at full speed, sprinting to catch Austin Meadows’ popup.

Having channeled the aura of Derek Jeter’s 2004 dive into the seats, Urshela remained down for several moments, his right thigh and elbow aching. Remarkably, Urshela stayed in for two more innings until his muscles started to tighten.

“[At first], I felt like it was really bad; I felt a lot of pain in that moment,” Urshela said. “I didn’t even know what was happening. But I’m glad, thank God I feel really good. I think it could have been worse.”

Jameson Taillon started for New York and hurled 3 1/3 scoreless frames, one outing after the right-hander’s season seemed to be in jeopardy after sustaining a re-aggravation of the torn ligament in his right ankle. Taillon threw 45 pitches before the Yankees shifted into their bullpen game plan.

“It feels good enough to pitch,” Taillon said. “There was a question of whether I could do it or not. I thought I could, and I passed all the tests.”

Second baseman Gleyber Torres saved two runs, smothering a hard Joey Wendle grounder to end the fourth inning. The Yanks played fine defense behind Wandy Peralta, Clay Holmes, Chad Green, Jonathan Loáisiga and Aroldis Chapman, who all held the 100-win Rays down. It was the brand of performance that Judge hopes to see about a dozen more times this month.

“We’ve got a great starting rotation, and our bullpen is fantastic,” Judge said. “We were able to showcase that a little bit today. Even our offense, I know we only got one run today, but it’s a lot of good at-bats -- a lot of quality at-bats, a lot of tough outs. When you’re able to do that in the postseason and wear teams down, those are the teams that really make it far.”