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Yankees 1, Rays 0: Aaron Judge punches ticket to the postseason

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Who else but the right fielder would come up with the biggest hit of the season?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees are a playoff team.

Aaron Judge, the team’s best player and one who will end up with his share of MVP votes, had perhaps the biggest hit of the club’s season. The big men notched a walk-off, infield single off Andrew Kittredge to plate the only run of the game in the bottom of the ninth as the Yankees clinched a playoff spot in a 1-0 win over the Rays.

I have no idea how far the Yankees will advance this postseason. This is a team that’s won 13 games in a row, a team that went into a couple of pivotal series in Boston and Toronto in big series and won five of six. Yet it’s also a team that absolutely disappears for extended stretches at the plate, and even in a game like today — where the mishmash of arms sent out to the mound held the dangerous Rays scoreless — the team managed a single hit in the first eight innings.

But we might as well start at the end, with Rougned Odor singling in the bottom of the ninth. Gleyber Torres advanced pinch-runner Tyler Wade with a deep flyout, and an Anthony Rizzo single could have scored Wade, but with Judge due up, I can only assume that the decision was to let the Yankees’ best player hit with a man 90 feet away.

And, well:

Not a lot of Hollywood endings feature a walk-off infield hit, but that’s exactly what happened in the Bronx. Kittredge pounded Judge with sinkers and sliders, and while he certainly didn’t surrender the final hit on a meatball, it caught enough of the plate, and Judge got just enough for it to count.

A round of applause is dude for the Yankees’ pitching staff, which shut down a Rays lineup that scored the second-most runs in the majors this year. Starter Jameson Taillon did his job, going 3.1 innings and keeping the Rays’ top four off the board while facing them twice. He wasn’t great in the first but settled down well in the second, especially with his fastball and curve — getting whiffs on two-thirds of his breakers, I thought he could have worked them into early counts more often, and indeed, had he pitched deeper into the game he may have.

Taillon came up especially big in the third, where a walk and single put two Rays on with the 2-3 slots in the order looming. The Taillon we’ve seen the last couple of months might have wilted right there and put his club in a hole, but a key strikeout of Randy Arozarena — followed by a lineout off Wander Franco’s bat — ended the threat and kept the game tied at goose eggs apiece.

After Taillon, the team was always going to be piecing together the game the rest of the way. Wandy Peralta was fine, but shaky in the fourth inning, and replaced by Clay Holmes in the fifth, who was outstanding. Holmes faced three men, got a strikeout and two easy outs from Franco and Nelson Cruz, before being replaced by Chad Green.

I thought Holmes could have been left in for longer — he’s the team’s best reliever aside from Jonathan Loáisiga, and threw just 14 pitches while recording three outs. Green was brought in with two out, and Gio Urshela made one of the best defensive plays of the season:

There was about a five-minute delay as Gio was evaluated and eventually limped, under his own power, back to the Yankee dugout. Even more amazing, come the top of the seventh, he was still manning shortstop. He was subbed out for Andrew Velazquez in the ninth after visibly still being in pain in the field.

At the time I’m writing this, we still don’t know what the AL playoff field will be. Boston is tied with the Nationals, and if they lose, the Red Sox and Blue Jays will play tomorrow in Game 163 since the Mariners are also trailing the Angels late and on the verge of elimination. If that scenario plays out, then the Yankees will host the Wild Card Game on Tuesday with Gerrit Cole on regular rest. Should Boston squeeze out a win, Cole and the Yankees will head to Fenway as the road team and the Blue Jays will go home for the winter.*

*Update: The latter is exactly what happened. Boston won and will host the Wild Card Game against the Yankees on Tuesday night.

It was an extremely stressful Sunday of baseball, but Yankee fans will get to enjoy at least one day off as the dust settles around the league.

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