Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 22, 2022

From Agony To Ecstasy, By Way Of History

There are more than 40,000 fans at Yankee Stadium on this Tuesday night, and for almost all of them, the last three hours have been painful.  Okay, the young couple in the adjacent seats who are wearing Pittsburgh Pirates gear seem quite cheerful, but over the course of 8 1/2 innings and three-plus hours of play, the home partisans have gone from hopeful, to concerned, to surly.  Though there have been moments that elicited cheers from the crowd, those earlier highlights have by now been largely forgotten.

It seems like ages ago that Nestor Cortes, the season’s great and wonderful surprise in the starting rotation, threw five effective innings.  He was not dominant, but Cortes scattered five hits and a couple of walks, ultimately yielding just a lone run while striking out four.  And New York set him up for the win by answering the Pittsburgh tally with a pair of runs in the bottom of the 5th.  Oswaldo Cabrera led off that frame with a long drive that Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds misplayed, an error that allowed the rookie to race all the way to third.  Harrison Bader, the trade deadline pickup who is finally playing his first game in pinstripes after a long stint on the IL, then scored Cabrera with a single to left.  After moving to second on a ground out, Bader made a daring dash to home when catcher Jose Trevino lofted a soft fly to short center that just eluded the glove of a diving Reynolds.  The center fielder was up quickly and threw to the plate, but Bader’s headfirst slide beat the tag and put the Yankees on top, 2-1.

Sadly, for most fans other than the happy Pirates pair, New York’s bullpen promptly gave the lead right back.  The normally redoubtable Ron Marinaccio allowed two of the four batters he faced in the top of the 6th to reach, and when Yankee manager Aaron Boone sent for the less capable Lou Trivino the move promptly backfired, as Trivino’s second pitch was hammered for a two-run double.  The batsmen again answered in the home half, with Bader once more donning the hero’s cape by knocking in a pair.  But Boone stuck with Trivino for the 7th, and this time it was the right-hander’s very first offering that was smoked into the second deck in right field.  The solo shot, off the bat of Pittsburgh’s Reynolds, knotted the score at 4-4.

Still, a tie game in the late innings, while not what the crowd had expected against an opponent with fewer wins than all but one major league franchise, was imminently winnable.  Or so it seemed until the top of the 8th.  That’s when a walk, some sloppy fielding by first baseman Anthony Rizzo, an RBI single, and a three-run homer, propelled the visitors to an 8-4 lead.  That the home run came at the expense of reliever Clay Holmes was especially alarming.  Earlier this year Holmes looked like the answer to the dreams of fans in the Bronx, when he excelled as the team’s closer after Aroldis Chapman seemingly forgot how to throw a strike.  But this is September, not May or June, and with repeated bad outings Holmes has lost the trust of Yankee fans.  He’s serenaded with boos as he walks to the dugout after finally ending the brutal 8th inning.

Now the home squad is down to its final three outs.  Were this not September, but say May or June, many of those in the three tiers of seats would have headed for the exits an inning ago, right after giving Holmes an earful.  But the reason there are 40,000-plus paying customers on a school night in September against a last-place team from the NL Central, is due to lead off for New York in the last of the 9th.  Aaron James Judge is walking to the plate, and his pursuit of history, even more than a single Yankee win over the course of the longest season, is what the crowd has come to see.  No one has left the building.

Reaching base one time in four might satisfy some players, but by Judge’s standards it has been an off night.  Two groundouts and a walk, followed by a bases loaded strikeout in the 7th.  But no one, in the stands or press box or either dugout, doubts the potential he always brings to the batter’s box.  So we rise as one, every smartphone camera in the place focused on the trio at home plate, umpire, catcher, and Judge.  Fifty-nine times this season, this scene has ended with a ball off Judge’s bat flying over the fence of one stadium or another.  The two most recent occasions were in Milwaukee on Sunday.  Now the 30-year-old is on history’s doorstep.  For more than a generation Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs were an unreachable record.  Then, when Roger Maris hit 61, the new mark stood for nearly four decades.  No American League player has matched those numbers, and some fans insist that no clean player – someone not associated with the steroids era – has either. 

Judge looks at a called strike, and then three straight deliveries out of the zone from Wil Crowe, the Pirates righty who is a distant relative of Red Ruffing, the Hall of Fame hurler who played with Ruth.  Knowing another ball means a walk, Crowe tries a sinker that probably catches more of the plate than he had hoped.  Judge swings, and the ball rockets deep into the left field bleachers even as the crowd erupts in a deafening roar.  Move over Babe, make room for Aaron.

Judge is a consummate team player, and he knows the Yankees still trail 8-5, so it takes considerable encouragement for him to finally step out of the dugout for a brief curtain call.  Even the nearby Pirates fans are pleased, and why not?  They got to see history, and their team is still comfortably ahead.

But the Yankees, as if awakened from a slumber by their leader’s heroics, strike.  Rizzo doubles into the gap in left-center field, Gleyber Torres walks, and Josh Donaldson moves both up with a single to right.  Bases loaded, nobody out, and Giancarlo Stanton steps in.  The rollercoaster of emotion has taken its full turn.  Hope is alive, and we are all on our feet.  A called strike, two balls, and a foul.  Then, unwisely in retrospect, Crowe tries to fool Stanton with a changeup.  Stanton is not fooled.  He connects and the ball darts like a laser towards the left field seats, arriving there even as the roar is building.  For the second time this season, the Yankees have a walk-off win on the immutable strength of an ultimate grand slam.

Two young, and very stunned, Pirates fans gape.  People around them are gracious and consoling.  Perhaps they are just being magnanimous after such an unlikely victory.  Then again, the commiseration, which is heartfelt and involves several different groups, may be more basic.  Everyone has tasted the bitter and the sweet this evening, and in the end, whatever team’s gear we wear, we all live the life of fans.  Win, lose, joy, despair, live, die, rinse, repeat.  And if we’re lucky along the way, every so often, witness history as it’s made.  

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