Entering the ninth with a one-run lead, the Yankees had to feel good about their chances of winning their second of three, and taking their second-straight series win on Sunday. With the best closer in baseball set to enter, the game was all but over. Unfortunately, Aroldis Chapman had other plans. Chapman gave up walks to the first two batters on nine total pitches, leaving the tying run in scoring position with the game-winning run on first, still having yet to record an out. Despite starting the inning with an 84-percent chance of winning the ballgame, Chapman had ceded so much ground that the Yankees’ odds of victory had fallen to just 56 percent.
Then, in baseball’s greatest facsimile of a deus ex machina, Sean Murphy chopped a 1-0 fastball to Gio Urshela at third base, who tagged the base and fired to DJ LeMahieu on the bag at second, who then flipped the ball over to Chris Gittens at first for an inning-ending, game-ending, triple play. In a mere matter of seconds, the mediocre Yankee defense flipped the team’s odds in the individual contest from just better than 50/50 to 100 percent, good for a 44-percent win probability added on the play.
While the game-saving play felt substantial to the Yankees’ current run at a place in the postseason, the individual game’s result will not drastically change their likelihood of winning the World Series, as represented by the play’s 0.39-percent cWPA (Championship Win Probability Added).
However, it wasn’t even close to the most significantly impactful triple play in the history of the franchise. That honor goes to one made on June 1, 1918. With the club just a pair of games behind the Red Sox in the American League standings, the relatively freshly minted Yankees found themselves in the late-innings of a tightly contested ballgame. In the bottom of the eighth, with no outs, a two-run lead, and the bases loaded against the Chicago White Sox, the Yankees had about even odds of coming away victorious (51%).
Instantly ending the Sox rally, Chick Gandil — who’d grounded into a 27-percent wWPA double play two innings prior — lined out to Frank “Home Run” Baker at third, who caught the runner at second with a heave to Del Pratt, who nabbed the runner at first with a hose to the infamously unfortunate Wally Pipp. After the play, and the conclusion of the inning, the Yankees emerged with a 94-percent chance of victory, good for a 43-percent wWPA.
While Sunday’s play was marginally more valuable to the individual contest, the 1918 edition raised the club’s championship chances by 1.21 percent, the greatest increase on a triple play in franchise history. With the win, the Yankees cut the Babe Ruth-led Red Sox’s lead in the AL down to a single game. Keep in mind, with a 123-game season, each contest meant a tad more than every recent season other than 2020.
At the end of the month, the Yankees were able to at least match Boston’s record for an eight-day stretch, going up by as much as a single game on June 28th. However, things fell apart from July on, as the Yankees finished their season by winning only 23 of their final 59 contests, ending up in fourth place and 13.5 games removed from a World Series appearance. In their stead, the Babe’s Sox made the Series, downing the Chicago Cubs in six games to earn the club their final World Series win until 2004.
Alternatively, the most valuable triple play against the Yankees came as recently as 2011, in a game against the division-rival Rays. On September 27th, the second-to-last day of the season, the Yankees held a prohibitive eight-game lead over the Rays in the AL East, and a three-game lead ahead of the Rangers for the best record in the AL. With home-field advantage afforded to the winner of the All-Star Game that season, the Yankees wouldn’t have been able to earn home field in the World Series even if they had a better record than the only 100-game winner, the Philadelphia Phillies. Effectively, the Yankees’ regular season was already over.
The Rays, however, were embroiled in a battle with the free-falling Red Sox for the Wild Card spot, tied at exactly 89 wins apiece. The Yankees had little to gain in the remainder of the regular season, while the Rays were fighting to keep their season alive.
In the top of the sixth with the bases loaded and no outs, 2011 American League All-Star catcher Russell Martin came to bat. With the Yankees leading 3-2, Martin had a chance to pad Bartolo “Big Sexy” Colon’s lead.
Instead, he did this:
Starting with a perfectly placed chopper to Evan Longoria at third, the Rays fired the ball around the infield for a quick three outs, escaping the jam without any damage. The triple play gave the Rays a 21-percent wWPA boost, and a 0.93-percent cWPA boon, given its occurrence during the regular season’s stretch run. The Yankees, alternatively, were unaffected in that category given the fact that they’d already clinched. Still, despite the massive momentum swing offered by the sudden inning-ender, it wasn’t the most valuable play of the game.
In the seventh, Tampa Bay came to bat against Rafael Soriano, who’d come in to replace Colon with the aforementioned lead. After B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria walked, Matt Joyce faced Soriano, seeking revenge. Just a week earlier, Soriano had fanned Joyce to clinch the division for the Yankees.
This time, however, Soriano was unable to achieve his desired result as Joyce took him deep to right for a three-run homer and a Rays lead. The Rays were able to hold their two-run lead over the next two innings, giving them the win and keeping their playoff hopes alive.
The Red Sox also won that night, meaning both they and the Rays entered their respective contests on the final day of the season with identical records of 90-71. With a split result, the winner would earn a trip to the postseason, otherwise they’d enter a single-game playoff against each other to determine the winner of the Wild Card spot.
Holding an early lead over the O’s and the Rays down by seven to the Yankees, the Red Sox appeared to be in pole position to earn a trip to the playoffs. In the eighth, however, the Rays scored six runs, and tied it up in the bottom of the ninth to force extras. Meanwhile, the Red Sox found themselves on the wrong end of an upset, with Jonathan Papelbon blowing a one-run lead in the ninth, and losing the game to the last-place Orioles. As the Rays-Yankees game headed to extras, the Rays needed a single run to make the postseason. In the bottom of the 12th, with Scott Proctor facing Evan Longoria, this happened:
Somehow, Longoria squeaked a homer over the shortest part of the left-field fence, sending the Rays straight into the playoffs in one of the most iconic moments in the championship-less franchise’s history. Both they and the Yankees went on to lose their first-round matchups, but September 28, 2011 remains one of the greatest conclusions to the regular season ever, which wouldn’t have occurred had the Yankees not batted into a triple play on the previous evening.
One last triple play note: We must offer an honorable mention to the lone unassisted triple play involving the Yankees. It barely registered on cWPA (0.05%), but old friend Randy Velarde turned the trick for the A’s at old Yankee Stadium on May 29, 2000. With the runners going on the pitch, the former Yankee speared Shane Spencer’s line drive, tagged Jorge Posada, and then stepped on second to retire Tino Martinez for the final out.
It’s one of just 15 unassisted triple plays in MLB history, but since the A’s were already trailing by three at the time, it was just a 5-percent gain in wWPA. The Yankees won the game anyway, 4-1, as Andy Pettitte fired a two-hitter. (The only run he allowed was Velarde’s solo shot in the ninth.)
Should the Yankees complete one more triple play this season, they will become the sole owners of the all-time single-season record. While they’re unlikely to have another at all, they’re even more unlikely to have another as impactful as the one this past Sunday, given how much digging it requires to find triple plays that matter to a team’s chances of contention.