TORONTO — The Yankees have been waiting for days to celebrate a home run that has yet to happen, but on Tuesday they celebrated something more important that has, at times, seemed almost forgotten: a divisional crown.
Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the American League single-season home run record has captivated Yankee fans and the entire baseball world. It is a singular individual achievement that in recent days has altered the way Yankee games are broadcast and consumed.
But while Judge has been homerless in the last seven games, the Yankees have won six of them, including a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday that propelled the Yankees to the A.L. East championship. It is their first division title since 2019 and only their second in the last 10 seasons.
There really is something to play for beyond the home run chase.
“We’re the best team in the best division this year,” Manager Aaron Boone told his players after the game, as they stood in the clubhouse with champagne bottles at the ready. “We took everyone’s punches, we had to fight like hell for it. And now we get that opportunity to go on and realize our goal of being the champion. This deserves to be celebrated.”
Judge went 0 for 1 on Tuesday with four walks as the Blue Jays pitched to him very carefully. All five of his plate appearances went to full counts. But Toronto’s willingness to walk him allowed Judge to go around the bases and score twice as the Yankees improved to 95-59 with eight games remaining.
It was only the second time in Judge’s career that he has walked four times, but Judge said it did not frustrate him.
“Not for a win,” he said as he stood in front of his locker, soaking wet in the postgame champagne celebration. “I’ll take four walks for a win every single day.”
With it, the Yankees also clinched at least the No. 2 seed in the A.L., ensuring that they will avoid the risky wild-card round of the playoffs, which has been reworked under the new collective bargaining agreement into a three-game series held over three days at the higher-seeded team’s park. When that scramble is over and two teams emerge from the fray, the Yankees will have home-field advantage against one of them in a division series.
The Blue Jays, while eliminated from the A.L. East title, are still in first place in the A.L. wild-card race.
Now that the Yankees have secured their goal of winning the division, Boone could make a bold move by resting Judge for a game. Judge, who has played in every game since Aug. 5, said after Sunday night’s game against the Boston Red Sox that he intended to at least play until the Yankees clinched the division title. Boone said after the game that he would talk to Judge and assess the situation overnight. The Yankees do have a scheduled day off Thursday to travel back to New York before a three-game series with Baltimore.
Before Tuesday’s game, Boone was asked about his decision to play Judge in center field, a position that typically demands covering additional acreage.
“You guys are really pushing for an off day for Judge,” Boone joked to reporters. “You usually get on me for resting him.”
A rest day would scratch off one more chance for Judge to add to his home run total, but it could also help invigorate him for the final eight games. As fans attentively wait for Judge to break Roger Maris’s A.L. record for home runs in a single season, and networks around the country cut into their regular broadcasts to peek at his at-bats, it is interesting to note how he has responded to rest this season.
In the eight games he has played following a rest, his batting average is .333 (12 for 36) with six home runs, according to statistics compiled by the YES Network. He hit all of those home runs in three of the games after a rest, swatting two each on May 1, May 17 and June 22.
For the team, winning the division seemed almost predestined earlier in the season after the Yankees ran up a seemingly insurmountable lead in the standings. Through July 9, the Yankees’ advantage was 15 games ahead of the next closest rival. But an August swoon carried into early September, when the Yankees lost 20 of 29 games, chiseling that lead down to 3 ½ games through Sept. 9.
“Certainly there were days for me personally, where it was frustrating,” Boone said of the slump. “But there was always that belief that we would get through it.”
They did. September has been much kinder, thanks in large part to Judge, who for long stretches was their most productive hitter. They have also seen injured players like Anthony Rizzo return to health and productivity, while others, like Gleyber Torres, have contributed, too. Torres has now reached safely in 20 straight games and the rookie Oswaldo Cabrera is batting .321 with four doubles and four home runs in his last 15 games after going 2 for 4 Tuesday.
After beating Toronto, the Yankees had a tempered celebration on the field, much like after any routine win. But back in the clubhouse, they donned shirts with the words, “The East Is Ours,” written on them, listened to Boone’s speech and then erupted.
Judge said the late-season struggles made the Yankees stronger and solidified their internal bonds.
“When you play 162 games, you’re going to have those times when things aren’t going your way, when you think you’re doing everything right, but you can’t scratch out a win,” he said. “But what makes this team special is that guys didn’t waver. They came to work every single day and got ready to go out there and help us win.”
But no one has done more to help the Yankees win this year than Judge himself, who is likely to be rewarded for his effort with the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award after the season. That has all but been settled, and the divisional title is already denoted on the websites.
The only questions remaining now are how the Yankees will fare in the postseason, and whether Judge will hit another home run, or maybe two.
“I keep saying he’ll get there,” Boone said of the record. “But to see him rack up quality at-bat after quality at-bat is impressive.”