Baseball fans flocked to Toronto’s Rogers Centre Monday hoping to see Aaron Judge make history. Instead they witnessed heroics from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in a stirring win for the Blue Jays that felt like a playoff contest.
The baseball stadium was buzzing as a three-game set began between the Jays and the New York Yankees, with visiting slugger Aaron Judge trying to tie Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 homeruns in a single season. The Jays claimed a 3-2 extra victory in extra innings, leaving Judge stuck on No.60 and his Yankees left one game shy of clinching the AL East.
The Jays’ win came as Guerrero Jr. hit a walk-off RBI single in the tenth inning, scoring Cavan Biggio from second base in a game that had been tied 2-2 down the stretch. Toronto now needs just three wins to clinch a playoff berth. They upstaged Judge on this occasion, the biggest star in baseball.
Die-hard New York Yankee fans Steven and Ariana McDermott arrived early to their enviable seats along the first base line at Toronto Rogers Centre on Monday, carrying their infant daughter and a sign that read “Staying up past my bedtime to see history”.
The young family drove from Buffalo, the couple sporting pinstriped Yankees jerseys, and baby Charlotte wearing a onesie, bedazzled with the glittery words “Cutest Yankees fan”.
“We also got a hotel room up there, because we didn’t want to miss this, but we know she won’t make it past the third inning,” said the young father, pointing to the row of in-stadium hotel windows that overlook the Rogers Centre outfield. “We’ll get a picture here, so she has a memory of this night when she gets older.”
Judge had been trying to tie the record since the All-Star home-run masher crushed No.60 last Tuesday. He arrived in Toronto having gone homer-less in his last five games, even as his family and Maris’ had been there in New York waiting to see it happen. Stuck on 60, the quest for 61 followed him to Canada, and so did all the hoopla.
As the AL East-leading Yankees began batting practice Monday, a large pack of New York fans crowded down close to the dugout, clutching baseballs and markers, hoping for his autograph. Fans bounced around in the outfield stands nice and early as he took swings in a black hoodie, plenty wearing No.99 Judge jerseys. Many, even those in Jays jerseys, were hollering to the towering Judge to swing their way. Even the brightest baseball statisticians couldn’t predict where Judge might crush No.61 – his spray chart shows he’s homered baseballs in all directions.
On the concourse, a man selling $5 game programs was selling them faster than he could get new stacks out of the cardboard boxes.
One fan wore a white judge’s wig and brought a sign that said ‘All Rise’. Another had a large cloth on which he’d painted a bullseye with the caption “Judge, aim here”.
Judge had hit 11 inside Rogers Centre throughout his career. He was homerless in his previous eight games against the Blue Jays and had just three homers in 16 games against them this season. That included one that went viral online earlier this season, when a Toronto fan caught it and instead of keeping it, handed it to a boy in a Judge jersey, who instantly reacted with a joyful teary hug.
Talk of the No.61 homerun ball being worth millions had Toronto baseball fans abuzz. The game was not, however a sellout. The lower deck, and the prime outfield seats ripe for nabbing a homerun ball were mostly full, but plenty of seats remained available in the upper deck.
Nearly every seat was full inside the Rogers Centre press box though – with extra media in town for game, and the photo pits at field level were packed too. The manager of the visiting team typically speaks reporters before the game in the dugout or clubhouse, but to accommodate the big media throng, New York Manager Aaron Boone did his on Monday in a large media conference room.
“It’s easy to get behind him,” said Boone. “He’s a great face of the game.”
The Jays, an AL East team looking to bolster their chances of hosting a wildcard series, expressed their admiration for Judge’s season without losing focus on the task at hand.
“The baseball fan in me respects the hell out of Aaron Judge and the year he’s putting together,” said Jays manager John Schneider, in his office before the game. “It would be nice to keep him on ice for a couple of days. And I hope we’re winning by 12 if he hits a homerun.”
Monday seemed destined to be the night. Maris had tied Babe Ruth’s record hitting of 60 exactly 61 years ago, to the day. Plus another once-in-a-generation occurrence was taking place: Jupiter was closer to earth than it had been in 59 years.
For the 15th consecutive game, Judge lead off the Yankees. Fans met with the well-recognized first batter of the night with a booming mix that was hard to discern – a blend of rowdy boos and reverent cheers. Judge’s mother was in Toronto for the game, so was Roger Maris Jr.
In his first at-bat, Judge drove a Kevin Gausman fastball into right field for a single. The feeling was unmistakable, said Gausman, as sans stood up and pointed their phones at Judge, and umpires came out to give the pitcher different balls to face Judge than the other batters.
Once on base, the Yankees 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger, stood a full headed taller than Guerrero Jr., and shared a few laughs with the Jays hard-hitting first baseman.
“I didn’t want to be the answer to a trivia question,” said Gausman about facing Judge with a chance for him to set a huge milestone.
The record-seeking slugger took a walk on his second plate appearance of the night (Gausman got booed for that in the Jays home building), then the Jays nabbed him in a double play). Gausman struck Judge out in the sixth, and reliever Yimi Garcia got him on strikes in the eighth. With the game tied 2-2 in the tenth, Tim Mayza came out of the bullpen to replace Anthony Bass and intentionally walked the superstar – by request of his manager -- to a small chorus of boos from fans crushed they wouldn’t see history on this night.
The risky decision by Schneider helped the Yankees load the bases. But it paid off, as the lefty Mayza got to face lefty batter Anthony Rizzo – who lined out and put the Jays back up to bat.
Guerrero lined a sharp one into left field, and as Biggio scored, the Jays cleared their dugout to come celebrate the winning hit with him. The guy who usually douses his teammates with the Biosteel jug was this time drenched by fellow Blue Jays.
“My house! My house!,” Guerrero was yelling.
“Team win,” said Schneider, acknowledging the hit from Guerrero Jr., the bounce-back from Gausman after allowing two early, and shutout work from the bullpen: Garcia, Mayza, Bass, and Jordan Romano.
The Yankees and Jays play again Tuesday and Wednesday. Judge’s quest continues.