TORONTO — Intentional walks became an even touchier subject for Yankees fans on Monday night during their club's walk-off loss to the Blue Jays.
While New York's opponent used four fingers to make sure Aaron Judge didn't beat them in extra innings, the Yankees elected to attack Toronto's best hitter with the game on the line.
Aaron Judge, who has been handled with care by opposing pitchers over the last several months, stepped up to the plate in the top of the 10th with a chance to give his team the lead. Instead of pitching to Judge with runners on first and second in a tie ballgame, however, Toronto's manager John Schneider held up four fingers, loading the bases.
The decision worked to perfection. Left-hander Tim Mayza was able to get Anthony Rizzo to ground out harmlessly to first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. four pitches later, stranding the go-ahead run on third and the bases juiced.
In the bottom half of the frame, Yankees manager Aaron Boone handed the ball to right-hander Clarke Schmidt with a minuscule margin for error. After retiring the first two batters he faced, Schmidt hung a first-pitch slider to Guerrero, who smacked a walk-off single into left field.
Getting beat by Guerrero is always a possibility when your team travels north of the border. To do it in that spot with a base open is certainly a head-scratcher.
Boone explained after the 3-2 loss that the decision to pitch to Guerrero was him picking his poison. Sure, you can walk Guerrero there, but All-Star catcher Alejandro Kirk and his .806 OPS were looming on deck. Evidently the coaching staff felt Schmidt had a better shot at getting Guerrero with his sinker-slider mix, rather than Kirk.
"You don't really like either of those matchups," Boone said. "Once we got that, with two outs there, obviously you're gonna pitch carefully, but with Kirk behind him, it's pick your poison."
It's worth noting that Guerrero was coming off a road trip in which he hit .148 (4-for-27) leading up to Monday's game. Kirk, meanwhile, hit .269 (7-for-26) on that trip for Toronto. Schmidt had never faced either of those two hitters in a big-league game.
Boone added that he considered walking shortstop Bo Bichette one batter earlier after Schmidt struck leadoff man George Springer out to start the inning. That would've set up the double play with one man out and Guerrero coming to bat.
Bichette also attacked the first pitch and nearly hit a walk-off home run, but Judge hauled it in on the warning track in right-center, holding the automatic runner Cavan Biggio at second base.
It wasn't the same situation for Schneider in the top of the inning. Walking Judge was obvious, a chance for a left-on-left matchup with Rizzo up next. Besides, Judge is in the midst of a historic season and has been practically unstoppable for much of the year. It's almost always the right move to avoid the slugger when the game is on the line.
Judge was asked about the intentional walk in the top of the frame, admitting that he saw it coming when Toronto got Mayza up in the bullpen.
"Game on the line, that's where you want to hit. That's why I'm doing all the work to put myself in a position to go out there and help the team out and help us get a win right there," he said. "But I trust every single guy in our lineup and every single guy on our bench and especially the guy behind me, Anthony Rizzo. Day in and day out throughout this whole season, he has always come up with big spots. Today he didn't do it, but we'll show up tomorrow and get it done."
The beauty of both of those situations is that they could've worked out in the opposite fashion on any other night.
If Rizzo burned Mayza and put the Yankees ahead, then he's the hero and Schneider would've been asked why he didn't try to go after Judge, putting the go-ahead run 90 feet closer to home plate. If Schmidt got Guerrero in that spot and extended the game, Boone wouldn't be criticized for rolling with his reliever.
The same can be said if Boone and the Yankees decided to intentionally walk Guerrero and try their luck with Kirk.
Sometimes those decisions work out, other times the manager takes the fall. The only controllable factor in those types of situations is execution. On Monday night, Toronto was the side that got the job done in crunch time.
New York had plenty of chances. The offense going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position came back to bit them. Plus, Schmidt has to be more careful with that first pitch to Guerrero if he is going to pitch to him there. He could've worked around him and tried to get the slugger to chase. That's just a good hitter taking advantage of a mistake and a pitch to hit.
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