Aaron Hicks? Yes, Aaron Hicks.
The often ridiculous, sometimes downright obscure outfielder was the hero of the Yankees on Thursday night. His three-run, no doubt homerun in the bottom of the ninth, tied things up. Five batters later, Aaron Judge’s walk-off liner into the left corner of the field gave the Yankees an improbable 7-6 victory, just hours before Judge is due to hold an arbitration hearing to decide his salary.
Hicks busted just .288 en route to the game, the eighth lowest of all players with at least 200 at bats. For his late-game showdown with Astros’ closer Ryan Pressly, that was irrelevant. All that mattered was the ball meeting the bat, and Hicks did so with cathartic power.
Amid screams that he’s overrated, overpaid, and over his head, Hicks’ direct skyward point on hitting the home run signaled one thing: I’m over that.
“Man, it feels great,” Hicks said afterwards. “When you make contact with the ball and don’t even feel it, you just know you flushed it well, especially in a situation like that. With two guys ahead of me getting on base before me, and to get big and even the game there was huge. †
Jose Trevino later followed Hicks with a single through the middle on the seventh pitch of his at bat. DJ LeMahieu kept the inning alive for Judge by putting down several pitches below his knees and earning a two-run walk. They were the kind of at bats that the Yankees had missed the past eight innings, as they couldn’t catch up with either Framber Valdez or one of Houston’s top two relievers. Valdez went to his sinker in big places over and over again. At the end of his day, 62 of Valdez’s 101 pitches were sinking. The Yankees lagged the umpire quite often, as 17 of those sinkers landed for called strikes. All told, 32% of its sinkers led to a called strike or whiff. The average pitcher in 2022 will receive a call strike or whiff 27.5% of the time.
It only took about 20 minutes for Pressly and his replacement, deservedly Ryne Stanek, to ruin it all. Not that they needed it, as pretty much everything went as planned this season, but the Yankees’ ninth inning was a huge boost to their spirits. Their comeback showed the kind of determination that makes them one of the toughest teams to beat in September, October, and for any poor soul they have to face right now.
“There is a confidence that if the game is balanced or fair, they will find a way to win,” said Aaron Boone of his potentially historic team. “In the ninth, just some great, winning at bats. What a huge wave from Aaron, both Aarons.”
It’s not just that the Yankees are winning games. It is that they win games if their opponent gets a score of 95%. That’s still an A, but the Yankees are at an A+ level. When Judge strode at the plate with two outs and two runners, a single seemed inevitable. After a wasted rally in the eighth inning, the crowd was fully back into the game thanks to Hicks’ homer and LeMahieu’s scrappy walk. They went full nuclear when Judge’s ball hit the left field grass and the bombers sprinted out of their dugout to bully him. Thus, a clean, presumably confirmatory game for the Astros turned into a loss.
“We don’t like losing,” Hicks said.
Houston scored their runs in bunches, but couldn’t do that until early. They started things with three in the first before crossing over three more in the third. The heart of their order – which really runs from one to six – remains completely terrifying. Built like a statue in cleats, Yordan Alvarez continued his burgeoning MVP case. While Judge still has the award to lose, Alvarez showed at his first Yankee Stadium recital of the year. Playing in front of a national TV audience on MLB Network, the Astros’ left-handed laser show went 2-for-5 with three RBIs thanks to a heat-seeking missile in the right field seats.
Alex Bregman matched him with a three-run smash of his own that immediately threw a fan back onto the field. Both sluggers dealt their damage to Jameson Taillon, who arguably had the worst start to his otherwise brilliant season. Taillon’s last line showed ten hits, six earned runs and nine batted balls hitting the Astros at 100 miles per hour or better.
Alvarez and Bregman’s shots on the cheap seats weren’t enough to give the Astros a W, even though the Yankees’ offensive output was extremely limited for the first eight frames. Giancarlo Stanton, as he is used to, turned a lazy ball into an opposite field home run in the first. With a 34-degree launch angle, Stanton held the ball in the air long enough to send the entire stadium through a familiar thought process when watching the unique batter. ‘It doesn’t matter, does it? It seemed as if he barely waved. Wow, that’s in the second deck.”
But then the ninth inning happened. Pressly and Stanek melted away as the Yankees held out. If it feels like they may never lose again, it’s because of games, players (Judge when asked about his upcoming hearing: “We’ll talk after”), and moments like this. As Frank Sinatra sings in the team’s signature song, they want to be a part of it.