Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 27, 2021

History And Happiness In The Bronx

It has been a lovely evening for a ballgame.  Although the start of summer is still a month away, the daytime air held a touch of heat and humidity, a not entirely welcome harbinger of conditions that will be common enough in a few weeks’ time.  But that hint of summer sultriness dissipated with the setting of the sun, replaced by a pleasant and slowly dropping temperature and the soft touch of a breeze.  A pale sheen of cloud cover has drifted in overhead, though not enough to fully obscure the waxing gibbous moon that now hangs directly above the big stadium in the Bronx, like a flashlight in need of new batteries. 

Just over 14,000 paying customers have watched that moon make its slow progress across the sky above.  It is the largest attendance of the season, since this is the first game played under newly relaxed pandemic guidelines that now allow the Yankees to fill up to one-third of the Stadium’s seats.   Part of the franchise’s response to those new rules has been to open a handful of sections to fully vaccinated ticketholders.  Proof of that status is required for admission, but once through the turnstiles fans in those sections are free of the socially distanced pod seating in place throughout the rest of the ballpark.  Still, one could not help but notice that those seats did not fill up tonight.  Perhaps there was not enough time to market those tickets, or perhaps large numbers of fans are choosing to set their own rules, ones that are still more cautious than the government edicts.  

A handful of less than packed seating sections aside, what is most interesting about the crowd is that although the contest between the Yankees and the visitors from Chicago’s South Side has moved into the 9th inning, most everyone is still here.  At a ballpark that is also a tourist attraction there is always a segment of the crowd that arrives late and leaves early.  But not tonight.  No doubt some have stayed because of the comfortable weather, but surely the game has contributed to keeping people in their seats, for this one has been a taut thriller from Jordan Montgomery’s first pitch. 

The 28-year-old left-hander slots into the middle of New York’s rotation, but tonight he gave his very best impersonation of an ace.  Through seven innings and ninety pitches Montgomery allowed just four hits while walking none and striking out eleven, a career high.  Yet the Yankees needed their starter to be that good, because Carlos Rodon, pitching for the White Sox, showed that the no-hitter he recorded against Cleveland in mid-April was no fluke.  Rodon fanned the first five Yankees he faced; the first time that has happened at the Stadium since Sandy Koufax turned the trick in the 1963 World Series.  In six innings of work, he surrendered just two hits, walked none, and struck out thirteen, like Montgomery a career high.  The duel between the two is already one for the Great Game’s record books, as the first contest in the modern era in which both starting pitchers recorded ten or more strikeouts while issuing no walks and allowing no runs. 

In the home half of the 7th, Gleyber Torres finally put New York on the board.  The shortstop was late on a 99 mile-per-hour four-seam fastball from reliever Michael Kopech, but he got just enough bat on the ball to slice it over the short porch in right field for a home run.  The lead proved short-lived though, as Chicago responded in the top of the 8th, plating the tying run off New York reliever Jonathan Loasiga.

So, we are here, top of the 9th, all tied up at 1-1.  After eight innings of gradually building tension, Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman jogs in from the bullpen and takes the mound.  Three of Chapman’s five pitches to Yermin Mercedes top 100 MPH, but only one finds the strike zone, and Mercedes trots to first with a leadoff walk.  A pinch runner replaces the slow DH, making plain Chicago’s intent to play for a single score.  Thus it’s no surprise when Leury Garcia lays down a sacrifice bunt to the first base side.  The little roller is well-placed, with Chapman the only Yankee with a chance to make a play.  He charges off the mound, bends to pick up the bunt, and promptly flubs it for an error, putting two runners on with no outs.

On, Chicago’s win percentage, which was an entirely appropriate 50% at the start of the inning, spikes up to 70%.  For Yankee fans in the stands, there is no talk of percentages, just a growing sense of dread.  Chapman stands atop the hill as leftfielder Andrew Vaughn steps into the batter’s box.  He looks at two fastballs, the first outside the strike zone, the second in it.  Then Chapman, as he has done with great success in 2021, mixes things up with an off-speed slider.  Vaughn swings, bat and ball make contact, and an already historic game becomes even more so.

The ball is hit on the ground, sharply and right at third baseman Gio Urshela.  He gloves it just as it leaves the infield dirt on its second hop.  Urshela takes three quick steps and plants his right foot on third base for the force out of pinch runner Billy Hamilton, who has barely had time to break from second.  Even as that right foot is landing, Urshela is pivoting on it, turning to fire the ball to second.  Rougned Odor is racing there from his defensive post and arrives just in time to take Urshela’s throw.  Only now starting his slide into second, Garcia is out by several feet.  By the time he skids into the bag, too late to influence the play, Odor has moved to Garcia’s inside and past him, and is sending the baseball on its way to first.  There Luke Voit awaits, fully extended to shorten, if only by a millisecond, the time until Odor’s throw arrives in his glove.  The play at first is close, but clear.  First base umpire Todd Tichenor emphatically signals the third out, and Voit pumps his fist.  On the far side of the infield Urshela does the same, and between them Chapman makes it a threesome of fist pumps even as a broad smile creases his face.

It’s a triple play, that rarest of defensive gems, one that takes far more time to describe than to execute.  The Baseball Almanac records it as the second of the season, and the 724th in the history of the Great Game.  If that sounds like a lot, consider that the first one on the list is dated May 13, 1876.  That is less than five per season on average, and the first by the Yankees at home in more than eight years.  It would be hyperbole to say that the roar of appreciation makes the Stadium shake, for there simply aren’t enough people in the stands to do that.  But as the Yankees prance to their dugout, 14,000 fans who have just gone from the depths of doubt to the heights of hysteria do their very best to sound like three times that number.

Only minutes later, in the bottom of the inning, Aaron Judge laces a leadoff single to center, Urshela follows with a single to right, and Torres grounds an RBI single to left to plate Judge with the winning run, because after the top half of the 9th, the only possible outcome of this contest is a New York victory.  Forever witnesses to history as it was made, we fans stream to the exits.  As we do so, it’s safe to say that behind every smiling face there is one common thought.  It really has been an exceptionally lovely evening for a ballgame.

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