TORONTO — The Yankees have been waiting for days to celebrate a home run that has yet to happen, but on Tuesday they celebrated something more important that has, at times, seemed almost forgotten: a divisional crown.
Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the American League single-season home run record has captivated Yankee fans and the entire baseball world. It is a singular individual achievement that in recent days has altered the way Yankee games are broadcast and consumed.
But while Judge has been homerless in the last seven games, the Yankees have won six of them, including a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday that propelled the Yankees to the American League East championship. It is their first division title since 2019 and only the second in the last 10 seasons.
There really is something to play for beyond the home run chase.
Judge went 0 for 1 on Tuesday with four walks as the Blue Jays pitched to him very carefully. All five of his plate appearances went to full counts. But Toronto’s willingness to walk him allowed Judge to go around the bases and score twice as the Yankees improved to 95-59 with eight games remaining. The Blue Jays, while eliminated from the A.L. East title, are still in first place in the A.L. wild-card race.
With the win, the Yankees also clinched at least the No. 2 seed in the American League, ensuring that they will avoid the risky wild-card round of the playoffs, which has been reworked under the new collective bargaining agreement into a three-game series held over three days at the higher-seeded team’s park. When that scramble is over and two teams emerge from the fray, the Yankees will have home field advantage against one of them in a division series.
Now that the Yankees have secured their goal of winning the division, Aaron Boone, their manager, could make a bold move by resting Judge for a game. Judge, who has played in every game since Aug. 5, said after Sunday night’s game against the Boston Red Sox that he intended to at least play until the Yankees clinched the division title. Boone has given no indication either way.
Before Tuesday’s game, Boone was asked about his decision to play Judge in center field, a position that typically demands covering additional acreage.
“You guys are really pushing for an off day for Judge,” Boone joked to reporters. “You usually get on me for resting him.”
But there is reason to think a rest could help. As fans attentively wait for Judge to break Roger Maris’s A.L. record, and networks around the country cut into their regular broadcasts to peek at his at-bats, it is interesting to note how he has responded to rest this season.
In the eight games he has played following a rest, his batting average is .333 (12 for 36) with six home runs, according to statistics compiled by the YES Network. He hit all of those home runs in three of the games after a rest, swatting two each on May 1, May 17 and June 22.
For the team, winning the division seemed almost predestined earlier in the season after the Yankees ran up a seemingly insurmountable lead in the standings. Through July 9, the Yankees’ advantage was 15 games ahead of the next closest rival. But an August swoon carried into early September, when the Yankees lost 20 of 29 games, chiseling that lead down to 3 ½ games through Sept. 9.
“Certainly there were days for me personally, where it was frustrating,” Boone said of the slump. “But there was always that belief that we would get through it.”
They did. September has been much kinder, thanks in large part to Judge, who for long stretches was their most productive hitter. They have also seen injured players like Anthony Rizzo return to health and productivity, while others, like Gleyber Torres, have contributed, too. Torres has now reached safely in 20 straight games and the rookie Oswaldo Cabrera was batting .306 with four doubles and four home runs in his previous 14 games heading into Tuesday.
“I think they did a really nice job of never really getting too emotional or overwhelmed by it,” Boone said of the slump. “They did a really nice job of weathering the storm, keeping their blinders on, keep working and having the confidence that it would turn.”
The only questions remaining now are how the Yankees will fare in the postseason, and whether Judge will hit another home run, or maybe two.