Monday, December 6 2021

NEW YORK — At 6:08 p.m. ET on the last day of the regular season, Aaron Judge came to bat in the bottom of the ninth with two on and one out. A hit would send the New York Yankees to the postseason, another couple of outs and things would get a lot dicier. Somewhere in the crowd of 40,409 a scattered “M-V-P” chant started to gain traction, but quickly dissolved into the buzzing ambient noise of anxiety and excitement.

At 6:11, Judge smacked a ball 104.4 mph up the middle. It bounced off the mound, got scooped up by the Rays second baseman and hurled back towards home plate, where it arrived just a touch too high and a second too late to beat Tyler Wade, pinch-running for Rougned Odor. Suddenly, Yankee Stadium was deafening. The whole team was on the field. In a day that could have been defined by chaos, the Yankees had found a way to control their own destiny.

“It’s been a crazy, wild, tough year,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Fitting that it would come down to the last day to get in.”

But let’s go back.

On Sunday morning, the Yankees arrived at the stadium with suitcases in hand.

“We’re packed for the week,” Boone said pregame.

They were going to play a Game 162 that would determine whether they would be going to the postseason or going on the road to fight for a spot in the postseason in a Game 163.

On Saturday night, after their 100th win of the season, the Rays players gathered in a suite at their hotel in New York to watch college football and talk about the madness and many permutations of postseason possibilities that would play out on the final day of the regular season. The Rays had locked up the pennant in the AL East, a division that would end with three 90-game winners, a week prior. They were headed straight to the ALDS to face whichever team emerged from the wild-card game. And that’s where things got complicated.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 03: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates with Rougned Odor #12 after hitting a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 at Yankee Stadium on October 03, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 03: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates with Rougned Odor #12 after hitting a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 at Yankee Stadium on October 03, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Aaron Judge sent the Yankees to the playoffs with a walk-off hit to break a scoreless tie. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Flirting with postseason chaos

Entering Sunday, four teams — Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Mariners (yes, really) — were still vying for the two American League wild-card spots. With none of the four facing each other, the day started with 16 possible outcomes, 10 of which would trigger two-, three- or four-team tiebreaker scenarios.

“I think it’s gonna be tough for anyone to follow,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said about an hour before all 15 first pitches were thrown just a few minutes after 3 p.m. ET. “I mean there’s just so many different outcomes that can happen.”

“It’s crazy but this is great for baseball,” he said.

Spoken like someone who had already punched their postseason ticket.

“The four teams that are in it, it might not be the most exciting thing for them,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said pregame.

In the past month, the Yankees have seen their playoff odds careen from 94% on Sept. 3 to just 29% a little more than two weeks later. Ahead of their last series of the regular season, their odds sat at roughly 95%, all but assured a spot in the wild-card game. They just had to win against a Rays team that ostensibly had nothing left to play for. Except, that is, the long game.

If the Rays could force their eventual foes into a tiebreaker situation, it would mean back-to-back must-win games for that team. The Yankees, for instance, would start ace Gerrit Cole in a tiebreaker, then go to Corey Kluber or else lean on their bullpen for a wild-card game — all just to earn the opportunity to face a well-rested Tampa team.

“You’re talking about using more pitchers, not being able to rest guys that maybe need some rest going into a game or a series,” Cash said of how the various tiebreaker scenarios could have been a boon to the Rays. “So, yeah, havoc could create all those issues.”

The Yankees could lose and still advance — leaving their fate to the three concurrent games being waged in pursuit of the same goal. Boone said he’d be watching the out-of-town scoreboard closely, perhaps managing the late innings a little differently if the other three contenders fell behind, clearing a path for the Yankees to back into the playoffs.

Or they could win. A win would mean a guaranteed wild-card spot — even if their opponents were still knotted together — and no tiebreaker to rush off to. A win and they could catch their breath tomorrow, reserve Cole for the wild-card game. A win would mean that, in a year where they were expected to be one of the best teams in baseball, at least they wouldn’t miss the postseason entirely.

To win, though, they would need to score.

Yankees emerge with a fresh start

At 3:19 p.m., Judge grounded into a double play to end the bottom of the first inning, erasing Anthony Rizzo, who had been hit by a pitch. At the same time, Blue Jays leadoff man George Springer was hitting a home run in Toronto. An hour later, he’d add a grand slam to ensure the Yankees wouldn’t coast to a wild card on the virtue of collective failure.

Rizzo was one of just three baserunners the Yankees managed in the first eight innings against a cavalcade of Rays pitchers, led by veteran starter Michael Wacha — who needed 56 pitches to get through five scoreless innings against a New York lineup that showed maddeningly inconsistent flashes of its powerhouse potential this season.

But the Rays didn’t score either. Six Yankees pitchers combined for a five-hit shutout and shortstop Gio Urshela sprinted full speed into the visiting dugout for a terrifying, inning-ending catch that jolted the crowd awake and put a spark in the Yankees.

“A 0-0 game and it was this awesome, edge-of-your-seat kind of game,” Boone said.

Spoken like someone who came out on top.

In the end, the Yankees scratched together a single run on a couple of hits off a team that has looked better than them all season. Along with 91 other wins, it’s all they needed for their fifth consecutive postseason berth. Elsewhere, the Mariners’ magical late-season surge ended with a loss. The Blue Jays demonstrated the kind of power that ensures they will be missed on the national stage this month. And the Red Sox got a late go-ahead homer to ensure the season ended Sunday and the Yankees will have to survive a rival match in Boston if they want to see the Rays again this year.

“Now the season begins,” Judge said. “All that other stuff, those 162, that was spring training. Now it’s time to get to the regular season and get this thing rolling.”

Source: Yahoo Sports

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