NEW YORK — When Aaron Judge stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday, he sensed within the ballpark exactly what he had 24 hours prior when he dug in for a similar clutch, late-game situation.
Energy. Electricity. Emotion.
Yankee Stadium was buzzing in anticipation of something big happening. Much as they’ve done so often in the past week, Judge’s New York Yankees were rallying, and threatening to pull off another come-from-behind victory.
“It’s the energy of the fans, and they’re getting excited and a couple guys get on and we start feeling that energy too, and now the pressure’s not on us,” the Yankees right fielder said.
“The pressure’s on the defense. The pressure’s on the pitchers.”
The pressure that weighed heavily on Boston Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly’s shoulders as Judge steadied into his half-crouch stance soon got heftier.
Kelly was toeing the rubber during a period of the game that has been torturous for opposing teams in recent weeks. As three likely postseason contenders with quality bullpens have just found out, no lead is safe when the Yankees are trying to erase it. Whether they ultimately win or lose games like Thursday’s as the season continues, the Yankees have proved it won’t be easy to finish them off.
“That’s why [as a starting pitcher] you’re always trying to just make sure that you keep the game close,” Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia said. “Bend not break. And go out and try and to do whatever you can and get the team back in the dugout. Because we can score runs at any point.”
Entering Thursday’s game, the Yankees have clawed their way to 10 comeback victories on the season. While that’s tied for fifth among major league teams, New York’s never-quit brand of hitting has been on full display over the past eight days.
Twice since May 3 the Yankees have charged back from deficits in the eighth and ninth innings to win. Within that same stretch, they also have earned a pair of walk-off victories. They won another game when Judge broke a tie, delivering the decisive run with a seventh-inning single.
Of late, the last three innings of ballgames have been the Yankees’ own version of a torture chamber for opposing relievers.
“If you’re not on top of your game, you’re in some trouble, and that’s because of the way really each guy goes up there with a plan and grinds out an at-bat,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “The at-bat quality is there and we make you earn it as a pitcher.
“We know we have the dudes that more often than not are going to be able to break through once you slip up.”
When Kelly — who infamously hit Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin with a pitch that precipitated a benches-clearing brawl last month in Boston — entered Thursday’s game with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh, his team held a 4-0 lead.
But then up came Yankees leadoff man Brett Gardner. Kelly walked him on four straight pitches. With the bases still full, Judge stepped in with one goal in mind: drive in more runs and keep the inning going.
A hard single into left field allowed him to do that, making it 4-2.
“That’s the biggest thing is just when you’re in those moments, you’ve got to enjoy it,” Judge said. “You can’t think about, ‘Ah, I’ve got to get this job done.’ Just enjoy the moment, be free and see what happens. That’s what guys have been doing the past couple weeks, and it’s fun to be around.”
With the volume rising in a still mostly full Yankee Stadium — a fifth-inning rain delay caused the crowd of 46,899 to dwindle — the Yankees continued applying pressure.
Didi Gregorius followed Judge’s RBI single with a grounder that brought in another run and moved Gardner to third, forcing Judge at second. One pitch later, a Kelly wild pitch got just far enough away from catcher Christian Vazquez for Gardner to score the tying run.
The Yankees had completed a four-run surge, erasing the deficit they had faced just a few minutes prior.
“Our lineup as a whole is really hard to get through time and time again,” Boone said. “And it’s a tribute to all those guys that make you work.”
In the next half inning, though, Boston slugger J.D. Martinez hit a home run to right that struck off a fan’s hands mere inches over Judge’s outstretched glove at the wall. The go-ahead shot ended up being just enough for the Red Sox, who this time held on in the eighth and ninth to beat the Yankees 5-4 and return to a tie atop the American League East with New York. It was just the Yankees’ second loss in their past 19 games.
Although they lost Thursday, the Yankees believe the type of wins they have been pulling off will be the norm.
“It goes back to last year in the postseason,” Judge said. “A lot of these guys got a clear taste of what a postseason atmosphere is. And now we play in games like this, it’s just another day. It’s just go out there and get the job done. When the crowd starts getting a little crazy and gets behind us, it’s just go up there, have quality at-bats and see what happens.”