Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 18, 2022

From Jeers To Cheers With One Swing

We are not happy.  Not just here in the second deck, but also down on the field level and above in the third tier with its rows of blue seats stretching up underneath the instantly recognizable Yankee Stadium frieze, we fans are not happy.  Our heroes are down to their last three outs, and the outlook for this final contest of a three-game set against the division rival Tampa Bay Rays is grim.  Anyone opting to pull up FanGraphs on their smartphone will see that the Yankees have just a 9% win probability here in the bottom of the 10th inning.

That grim statistic is thanks to one-time closer Aroldis Chapman’s implosion in the top of the frame.  Chapman, whose erratic performances first cost him his role as the team’s stopper and then sent him to the Injured List, had looked strong since coming off the IL, albeit as a setup man pitching in less stressful situations.  But tonight, summoned from the bullpen with one out and asked to hold the Rays in a 4-4 tie, he managed to throw just a single strike while issuing back-to-back walks.  With Roman Quinn already at second as the designated runner to start the extra frame, the free passes loaded the bases for Tampa Bay.  Chapman rallied to fan the next batter, and then got two quick strikes on Francisco Mieja.  But the rising cheers were cut off like a broken circuit when Mieja sliced a liner into the right field corner for a bases-clearing double, putting the Rays on top 7-4.

It has been that kind of evening, one that has reflected the home team’s recent malaise.  For the boos that greeted Chapman as he trudged to the Yankees dugout after finally recording the third out were about more than a single bad performance by one pitcher.  New York dropped the first two games of this divisional matchup, meaning that before the team even took the field this evening it had lost its fifth straight series.  On August 1st the Yankees became the first club to reach 70 wins for the season.  Only two victories have been added to that total since then, and the Dodgers, Mets, and Astros have all passed New York in the race for the best record and the assurance of home field advantage through the playoffs that goes with it.

The downward spiral began even earlier, before the All-Star break, and has been marked by all-around poor play.  The starting rotation has faltered, the bullpen has at times been shelled, errors have mounted in the field, and the offense has disappeared for extended periods.  Just this week New York was shut out in Boston on Sunday, blanked again by the Rays on Monday, and held to just a single tally on Tuesday.  When the Yankees failed to score through the first five frames this evening, the so-called Bombers had plated one run in 32 innings.

There have been a few hopeful signs as the game has progressed, but they have been offset by a quick return to flailing.  After falling behind 4-0, New York got on the board in the 6th, when Aaron Judge led off with a double and Gleyber Torres followed with a blast to left that ended the Yankees’ homer drought. 

But one inning later the second baseman had a chance to add to his heroics when he stood at the plate with the bases loaded and one out.  Judge had already drawn a walk on four pitches to force in one run, cutting the Tampa Bay lead to 4-3.  But despite seeing that the Rays’ Pete Fairbanks was having trouble finding the strike zone, Torres refused to wait, swinging on at the first offering and sending a routine grounder to short, leading to a rally-killing double play.  It was the fourth time this year a Torres based loaded at-bat produced an inning-ending double play, tying him for the major league lead on a list no hitter wants to be on.  His companion at the top of the ignominious ranking is teammate Aaron Hicks.

Still, another homer in the 8th, this one off the bat of Anthony Rizzo, knotted the score at 4-4, and strong relief performances by Ron Marinaccio and Scott Effros held the Rays in check.  Then came Chapman’s meltdown, and so the boos rained down. 

So too did real rain, in the top of the 7th inning.  As Yankees manager Aaron Boone was signaling the bullpen for Marinaccio, a member of the grounds crew was showing the home plate umpire a tablet which obviously displayed the local weather radar.  Time was called and even as the tarp was being pulled into place over the infield a downpour arrived, suspending play for just over one hour.

The delay sent much of the crowd of more than 42,000 home, and many of us who remain are wondering why we stayed, as the hands on the oversized clock above the left field bleachers approach midnight and Torres steps into the batter’s box.  Judge, whose fly ball to the deepest part of the ballpark died just in front of the 408 foot sign in center to end the 9th, takes his position at second base as the designated runner.  If only his drive had been a few degrees left or right of that line, we would already be headed home.  Instead, we are here, and not happy.

Torres slices a line drive to right for a single, with Judge advancing to third.  There are a few cheers, but the odds are still very, very long.  Then Rays pitcher Jalen Beeks treats Rizzo with caution, walking him on four pitches, only one of which is above Rizzo’s ankles.  This is reminiscent of New York in the first three months of the season, when every game seemed winnable, and no deficit was too much to overcome.  But the next batter is Josh Donaldson, who has just 3 hits, all singles, in his last 28 at-bats. 

Still, the possibility is there.  If only, if only.  Donaldson swings and misses at a fastball, late on the pitch as usual.  Ah well, probably not.  But if only, if only.  Then Beeks delivers another four-seam heater, just a tad lower than his first one.  Donaldson, who will later say he guessed changeup on the first pitch but changed his thinking for the second, swings.  He does not miss.

As the ball sails into the night sky, the clock hands in left field are at full attention.  A new day has begun.  The ball is shooting the other way, toward the right field seats.  Donaldson is certain where it’s going, as evidenced by his bat flip.  And so, suddenly, are we in the stands.  After nearly five hours of doubt, disappointment, and delay, unbridled joy arrives with the turning of the calendar.  It is an ultimate grand slam, the rare feat of hitting a walk-off, bases loaded home run while trailing by three.  It is only the 31st such blast in the modern history of the Great Game, and just the 13th in the American League.  Donaldson joins Babe Ruth and Jason Giambi as the Yankees on that list.  We roar our approval, and the Yankees pour out of the dugout to greet the three base runners, and finally Donaldson, at home plate.

One game does not end a team’s woes.  New York’s offense will wilt again against Toronto on Thursday, even as the Blue Jays pound starter Frankie Montas, the Yankees’ prized trading deadline pickup.  But in the small moments of the longest season, a player or team can find proof of their capabilities, and a fan base can be reminded of why it cheers.  Perhaps this season in the Bronx will end, as they have for more than a decade, well short of the only goal that matters for the Yankees and their fans.  But as we exit the Stadium in the first hour of a new day, we know Yogi was, as usual, correct – it ain’t over till it’s over.

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