As Judge makes history against Blue Jays, relief sets in at last

New York Yankees designated hitter Aaron Judge (99) speaks with the media after hitting an American League record tying 61st home run against the Toronto Blue Jays in American League MLB baseball action in Toronto on Wednesday, September 28, 2022. (Alex Lupul/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

TORONTO – A minute or two after Aaron Judge hit home run No. 61 on Wednesday, he finally had the chance to enjoy the moment.

This was after he’d given the New York Yankees the lead with the home run that tied Roger Maris for the American League record, after he’d hugged his teammates and after the Blue Jays’ bullpen had handed the ball off to New York reliever Zack Britton. But this was before Maris’s son called Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire’s home run totals ‘illegitimate,’ before Judge answered question after question with characteristic poise and certainly before anyone had ever heard of Frankie Lasagna.

In those brief moments before the Yankees took the field, Judge stood smiling on the far end of the Yankees dugout. Teammates Anthony Rizzo and Marwin Gonzalez were among those to joke with Judge, who acknowledged afterwards he felt significant pressure ease following a series in which the Blue Jays walked him seven times. Finally, he could breathe.

“Definitely some relief getting to 61,” he said afterwards with a laugh. “You try not to think about it, but it creeps into your head.”

Then, almost without missing a beat, Judge switched into Yankee-speak, making sure to credit teammate Gerrit Cole, whose 248 strikeouts tied Ron Guidry for the most by a Yankee.

“Getting the chance to do it in a Yankee win, especially on a day where Gerrit ties the all-time single-season strikeout record, that’s a pretty special day right there,” Judge added seamlessly.

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For the Yankees, the result of this game — an 8-3 win — was inconsequential. They clinched the AL East on Tuesday, and are also assured of a first-round bye. But whether you agree with Maris Jr. or not, whether you believe the Judge hype was unnecessary or appropriate, there’s no debating the calibre of the season he’s having.

He leads the American League in home runs, RBI and batting average, setting up the possibility that he’ll become the first triple crown winner in a decade. At a time when offence is down, he’s MLB’s first 60-homer hitter since 2001, when Bonds set the all-time record of 73. That’s more than Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Nolan Arenado combined. More than Jose Ramirez and Manny Machado combined. It’s incredible.

“He should be revered as the actual single season home run champ,” Maris Jr. said afterwards. “That’s really who he is if he hits 62.”

He’s not alone in thinking that, but that doesn’t change the facts. Bonds is baseball’s home run king. As for Judge, he’s now tied for the American League record and the Yankees record. For some, that’s everything.

“Words can’t describe it,” Judge said.

For others, the added scrutiny became a hassle. Pitchers facing Judge used specially marked baseballs all series, and some weren’t thrilled.

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“Why does he need a different baseball?” starter Kevin Gausman said Monday. “I think he’s going to get the baseball no matter what, right? I know why they’re doing it. But, you know, kind of weird.”

“It’s a tied record, it’s not a broken record,” added Blue Jays manager John Schneider, who made sure to credit Judge for his historic season.

As Gausman predicted, Judge was able to retrieve the ball thanks to a collective effort from both bullpens. Initially, it looked as though a fan might catch the home run ball, opening up all kinds of scenarios. But the fan – later reported by The Canadian Press to be local restaurant owner Frankie Lasagna – missed, and the ball bounced into the bullpen.

At that moment, things become blurry, but as Jordan Romano remembers it, bullpen coach Matt Buschmann picked the ball up and passed it along to major-league pitching strategist David Howell. Stadium security workers approached, but out of respect for Judge’s accomplishment the Blue Jays’ bullpen held on.

Meanwhile, Britton jogged over from the visitors’ bullpen to the home side in search of Judge’s record-tying ball.

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“We knew the ball was getting to him.” said Romano, who earned a post-game shout-out from Judge for what the outfielder called a class act move.

All series the Blue Jays pitched Judge with extreme caution, respecting the power that’s made him the game’s premier home run hitter. But when reliever Tim Mayza left a fastball up, Judge clobbered it.

It’s possible the Blue Jays will face Judge again during the playoffs, though that wouldn’t happen until the Division Series at the earliest. In the meantime they’re ready to move on from facing the Yankees and the biggest MLB home run race in years.

“Honestly it was a lot,” Romano said. “What he’s doing is incredible, but it was extra attention and I’m definitely glad we don’t have to face them anymore. It feels more like business as usual with the Red Sox coming in.”

As for Judge, he says his focus remains on the Yankees’ collective success. That approach has seemingly worked all year, so even if free agency is approaching this winter he’s staying on message for now.

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Declining the Yankees’ seven-year, $213.5 million offer will pay off handsomely for the 30-year-old, whose next contract will likely surpass $300 million in the view of some industry observers. In all likelihood, this will go down as one of the best walk-years of all-time. Already, we can say this: what Judge has done may not be unprecedented, but decades go by without seasons like this and there’s no guarantee we’ll see another one like it any time soon.

“I thought I got enough of it,” he said. “But it’s been a couple games since I’ve hit one. You never know.”

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