Coming off a rebuilding year in 2016 that saw the Yankees sell at the deadline and ultimately finish fourth in the division, New York entered 2017 with an exciting group of young players, though no real expectations for the season. Headlined by the likes of Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, Luis Severino, and Greg Bird, it appeared that the Yankees had the makings of a firm foundation upon which they could build a sustained period of success.
Little did they know how far that exciting Baby Bomber core would take them that autumn. Of course, they couldn’t get there without some early-season heroics from an unlikely veteran.
Date of Game: April 28, 2017
Final Score: Yankees 14, Athletics 11
Game MVP(s): Matt Holliday, Aaron Judge, Starlin Castro
The Yankees returned home from a quick five-game road jaunt in late April against the Pirates and Red Sox just in time to welcome the division-leading Orioles to Yankee Stadium for a three-game set. Back-to-back victories against Boston had reduced New York’s deficit to just one game, and a win in the series opener against Baltimore would see them grab an early share of the AL East lead.
Such were the stakes as CC Sabathia took the mound on an unseasonably warm yet beautiful cloudless Friday spring evening. The veteran lefty was no longer the ace he used to be, with age and recurring knee issues sapping him of his once-dominant form. However, a late-career renaissance the previous campaign showed that the 36-year-old still had something left in the tank.
Sabathia traded zeroes with Orioles starter Kevin Gausman through the first two innings before surrendering the first pair of runs on a Manny Machado double, plating Joey Rickard and Adam Jones. An inning later, he gave up another pair on a Welington Castillo two-run homer down the right field line. Add on top a Machado solo shot in the following frame and suddenly, the Yankees found themselves in a 5-0 hole heading to the bottom of the fifth. Judge’s solo shot in the bottom half cancelled that run out, but the Bombers still faced a four-run deficit entering the later innings.
Things got really hairy in the top of the sixth, with a pair of two-out singles from Rickard and Jones knocking Sabathia from the game. Reliever Bryan Mitchell then walked Machado to load the bases for Mark Trumbo, who blasted a 1-1 hanging cutter halfway to the retired numbers for a grand slam. By the time the dust had settled, the Orioles led 9-1 with Sabathia credited for 7 runs in 5.2 innings.
To their credit, the Yankees didn’t quit, clawing back some of the deficit in the bottom of the sixth. Holliday led off with a double, followed by a Starlin Castro one-out single to put runners on the corners for Didi Gregorius, who plated Holliday with an RBI groundout. Judge added two more with his second long ball of the night, a missile into Monument Park to make it 9-4 Orioles.
The Orioles would neutralize that pair of runs in the top of the seventh as Mitchell continued to struggle. He walked Castillo and Trey Mancini doubled to put runners on second and third with no outs. Jonathan Schoop singled to left to score the pair, making it 11-4, Orioles. Mitchell would go on to surrender another pair of singles before manager Joe Girardi decided he had finally seen enough, pulling the righty for Jonathan Holder.
Thus, the Yankees faced a seven-run hole with only three innings remaining, but once again showed their resolve. Austin Romine singled to lead off the seventh and knock Gausman from the game for Vidal Nuño. After a Brett Gardner flyout, the Yankees loaded the bases with a Chase Headley double and Holliday walk. Up stepped Jacoby Ellsbury, who crushed a 2-1 fastball into the bleachers in right for the Yankees’ own grand slam, reducing the arrears to 11-8.
It would wind up being the only grand slam of Ellsbury’s 11-year career, but he made his 100th homer a memorable one.
The Orioles’ three-run lead would persist into the bottom of the ninth, but with regular closer Zack Britton on the shelf with forearm tightness, they had to turn to makeshift closer Brad Brach to get the final three outs. He surrendered a leadoff walk to Headley, followed by a single to Holliday to bring Ellsbury to the plate with runners on the corners. Ellsbury grounded out softly to short to plate Headley, and up stepped Castro, who blasted off into the bleachers in left to send the game to extras and the 36,912 in attendance into a frenzy.
Having come all the way back from down eight in the sixth and down seven in the seventh, it felt like a matter of when, not if, the Yankees would walk it off. Well, the crowd didn’t have to wait long.
After a scoreless 10th with two strikeouts for Aroldis Chapman, the Bombers wasted no time in the bottom half. Aaron Hicks and Kyle Higashioka walked to lead off, and after a Headley strikeout, up stepped Holliday to face Jayson Aquino. He didn’t waste anyone’s time, swinging at a first-pitch changeup down and away. Off the bat, it looked like a routine flyball, but somehow, Holliday muscled it out into the Yankees bullpen for the walk-off three-run home run.
Although it was early in the season, this win felt like the beginning of something special for these new-look Yankees. They would blow all expectations out of the water, making it to Game 7 of the ALCS, seemingly ushering in a new era of contention. Perhaps we can look back on this moment as one of the catalysts of the Baby Bomber movement — it certainly stands out as one of the most exciting Yankees games of the last 25 years.