Only in this historic season by Aaron Judge could a walk-off grand slam by one of his teammates be rendered a mere footnote.
That’s not entirely true, of course, because Giancarlo Stanton’s blast after Judge had joined the 60-homer club earlier in the Yankees’ five-run ninth inning lifted them to a scintillating 9-8 victory over the Pirates and moved them closer to clinching the AL East title.
Still, with a comfortable lead over the second-place Blue Jays in the division race – still 5 ½ games with 15 to play following the euphoric comeback – the rest of this homestand is now squarely about Judge. No. 99 now trails Roger Maris’ 61 in ‘61 by one for the franchise record and American League mark after matching Babe Ruth’s 1927 total of 60 with a leadoff blast into the left-field bleachers against Pittsburgh reliever Wil Crowe to draw the Yanks within 8-5 in the ninth.
Judge looked uncomfortable taking a curtain call with his team down by three runs, but he admitted afterward, “I kind of lost my mind” after his teammates loaded the bases and Stanton — who got stuck on 59 homers with the Marlins in 2017 — scorched a 118-mph laser over the wall in left for the walk-off victory.
Maris’ family will be in attendance for a second straight game Wednesday night, when the Pirates are slated to start rookie righty Roansy Contreras, whom Judge has never faced. If he’s unable to match or surpass Maris against the Pirates, the rival Red Sox fittingly will be in town for four games beginning Thursday night.
What’s more, Judge moved into Triple Crown position as his lone hit of the night — paired with hitless games by Boston’s Xander Bogaerts (.315) and Minnesota’s Luis Arraez (.314) — raised his batting average to a league-best .316. He leads the American League by wide margins with 60 homers and 128 RBIs.
Lou Gehrig (1934) and Mickey Mantle (1956) are the only players in Yankees history to don the Triple Crown, and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (2012) the only player in the majors to do so in my 54-year lifetime.
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Be careful what you wish for
The Mets became the first of the two local baseball teams to clinch a playoff berth Monday night in Milwaukee, and followed it up with a come-from-behind 7-5 win Tuesday night powered by Francisco Lindor’s grand slam to remain a half-game up on the Braves. The Yankees have a more comfortable divisional lead and, thus, a tighter grip on a first-round postseason bye in the 12-team tournament to reach the World Series.
Divisional crowns would assure that neither New York team would have to face the loaded top teams in their respective leagues — the Dodgers and the Astros — until the LCS.
The Mets either will be the No. 2 seed in the NL with a bye in the first round if they win the NL East or the No. 4 seed facing the No. 5 team — likely the Padres or the Phillies — in a best-of-3 wild-card round series with all three games (if necessary) at Citi Field. If they are the No. 2 seed, they would face the winner of the 3-6 series – between the Central-leading Cardinals and the lower finisher of the Padres and Phillies — in the NL division series.
Barring a collapse rivaling the Mets’ late-season 2007 free fall — blowing a seven-game lead with 17 to play to the Phillies for the NL East title — the Yankees are ticketed for the No. 2 seed behind the Astros in the American League. That would put them in line to play the winner of the 3-6 series, which currently stands as the Central-leading Guardians and the sixth-seeded Mariners, in the AL Division Series.
Here’s a breakdown of the potential playoff matchups for both teams:
Mets wild-card round/NLDS opponents
Phillies: The Mets took 14 of 19 from the Phils this season with a plus-37 run differential, the division rivals concluding their season series on Aug. 21. A rotation fronted by Aaron Nola, ex-Met Zack Wheeler and Kyle Gibson is still dangerous, even if a step below Mets co-aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer and clear No. 3 Chris Bassitt. The Phils also rank fourth in the NL in home runs, including 40 from league leader and noted Mets crusher Kyle Schwarber, though Bryce Harper only has managed just two homers since returning from a two-month IL stint in late August.
Padres: The Mets dropped four of six to the Padres, but the sides haven’t faced each since San Diego obtained Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Josh Hader at the trade deadline. The Pods have remained in a playoff position despite that trio completely underperforming since their arrivals: Soto is batting just .231 with four homers and 13 RBIs and a .767 OPS in 39 games with the team. Hader also has been a disaster in the closer role with a 5.84 ERA, although the four-time All-Star has converted his past four save opportunities. But Manny Machado has posted an MVP-caliber season, and Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove form a formidable top three in the rotation.
Cardinals: The Mets went 5-2 in the season series, but can’t face St. Louis in the first round. The Cards would have to survive a three-game series against one of the two above clubs to see them in the NLDS. NL MVP favorite Paul Goldschmidt is ranked second in the league in batting average and RBIs and fourth in homers, five behind Schwarber. Nolan Arenado, a nine-time Gold Glove winner in his first nine MLB seasons, is two RBIs away from reaching 100 for the seventh consecutive non-COVID shortened campaign. Retiring legend Albert Pujols has mashed 13 homers since the All-Star break to move within two of 700 for his Hall of Fame career. The Mets’ 2006 NLCS last-pitch nemesis, Adam Wainwright, is still among the Cards’ top three starters, along with Miles Mikolas and either Yankees import Jordan Montgomery or well-traveled Jose Quintana.
Yankees wild-card round/NLDS opponents
Guardians: The Yankees outscored the surprise AL Central leaders by a 38-14 aggregate in taking five of six in the season series. Among Cleveland’s projected trio atop the rotation — Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill — only Bieber has made a postseason start, and it was a rocky one: a 12-3 loss to the Yankees in the 2020 wild-card round. It’s also not the most imposing lineup in the game, but Jose Ramirez probably should be listed third in AL MVP balloting. Former Mets infielders Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario also have posted productive offensive seasons with a combined 27 homers and 35 steals. The Guardians moved five games ahead of the White Sox in the Central with a win Tuesday in the opener of their critical three-game series in Chicago.
Mariners: The M’s snared four of six games against the Yankees this season, and deadline import Luis Castillo throttled them twice (three times overall, including an earlier start with the Reds). Castillo, who posted a 1.66 ERA over 21 2/3 innings in those three starts, forms a daunting top of the rotation with 2021 Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray and 2022 All-Star Logan Gilbert, but ex-Met Paul Sewald (five blown saves) isn’t scaring anyone as Seattle’s closer. Similar to All-Star week, a postseason series could be another national coming-out party for prized rookie outfielder Julio Rodriguez.
Rays: The Yankees finished 11-8 against their pesky AL East nemesis, including two straight convincing wins Sept 10-11 at the Stadium to prevent the Rays from tying them in the loss column. Tampa Bay knocked out the Bombers in five games in the 2020 ALDS, the lone postseason meeting between the teams. All-Star lefty Shane McClanahan returned last week from the IL to head a rotation featuring former Yankee Corey Kluber and some combination of Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs and assorted openers. Randy Arozarena has posted 11 home runs and a 1.197 OPS over 110 career postseason at-bats.
Blue Jays: A dangerous lineup featuring Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer and offseason pickup Matt Chapman has registered the second-most runs in the American League, one spot behind the Yankees. All-Star righty Alek Manoah and veteran Kevin Gausman clearly would get playoff starts, followed by either Jose Berrios or Ross Stripling. With three games remaining against the Yankees beginning Monday in Toronto, the Jays still can win the season series 10-9 with a sweep. They never have met in postseason play.
Going too far
As always, Kyrie Irving is free to express his opinions and beliefs on vaccines and other issues, and fully entitled to his stance in deciding to miss nearly two-thirds of the 2021-22 NBA season over his refusal to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. That doesn’t mean he should be allowed to get away with saying dangerous things, however.
After a quiet month or so publicly from the Nets guard, Irving was back in the headlines Tuesday for responding to New York mayor Eric Adams’ announcement that he’s ending the private employer vaccine mandate but keeping it for city workers. But he went too far in trying to make this point.
“If I can work and be unvaccinated, then all of my brothers and sisters who are also unvaccinated should be able to do the same, without being discriminated against, vilified, or fired,” Irving wrote on social media. “This enforced Vaccine/Pandemic is one the biggest violations of HUMAN RIGHTS in history.”
The latter part is the distressing and dangerous portion of Irving’s comments, unless he actually meant to suggest that vaccine rules are in the same class of the Holocaust, slavery, forced sterilization, child labor, Jim Crow laws, war crimes and various other atrocities throughout history.