Yankees punch playoff ticket after Aaron Judge’s walk-off single against Rays

It was simple really. The Yankees came into Sunday needing a win to get into the playoffs, but, of course, this team had to make it an emotional roller coaster to the end. After a season full of ups and downs, including three different COVID-19 outbreaks and nearly a dozen come-from-behind wins, it simply had to come down to the very last inning of the very last game of a 162-game season.

Aaron Judge drove a ground ball straight up the middle with one out in the ninth inning of Sunday’s regular-season finale to give the Yankees a 1-0 win over the Rays in front of a packed house at Yankee Stadium.

“Every year is so unique it has its different ups and downs, the good times the bad times, but you gotta enjoy it all,” Judge said. “You can’t have moments like this and walk it off, getting the chance to clinch a playoff spot these moments are so much sweeter because of those tough times; the losing streaks, the bad nights, the bad games. It makes these moments so much sweeter. So it was a lot of ups and downs, a roller coaster ride, but the whole time you got to enjoy that ride and keep bringing it every single day.”

The Yankees (92-70) will face the Red Sox (92-70) Tuesday night at Fenway in the American League Wild Card Game. Boston hosts the game because they won the regular-season series with the Yankees. With all their history, it will be the first time these two bitter rivals meet in the do-or-die, one-game Wild Card game.

“Well that’s gonna be a fun game right there,” Judge said of the bitter rivalry, which the Red Sox have won the last two times they have faced off in the playoffs. “They’re gonna bring their A game. We’re gonna bring our A game. It’s just gonna be another great game and this big rivalry we have…. we’re looking forward to it.”

After eight innings without mustering any offense, Rougned Odor got the Yankees going when he led off with a line drive single to center field. Gleyber Torres, who had the Yankees only hit through the first eight innings, moved Wade to second on a long fly ball to center. He was held up at third on Anthony Rizzo’s line drive single to right field.

“I thought it was the right thing to hold him up,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of third base coach Phil Nevin’s stop sign. ”With the throw being up the line, maybe he ends up getting there, but if the throw is online, I think he’s dead.”

And then Judge got his first walk-off ever in one of the biggest moments of his career.

“It’s kind of crazy, for all the milestones he’s completed. That’s his first career walk-off, but that’s the guy you want up in that situation,” Wade said. “He’s got a slow heartbeat right there. And I couldn’t be happier for him to send us to the playoffs.”

It took a Herculean effort from the pitching staff for the Yankees to get into that position. Jameson Taillon, who left his last start because he re-aggravated the tear of the tendon in his ankle, was able to give the Yankees 3.1 scoreless innings.

“He was terrific. I was hoping, hoping to get one inning, hoping. To get to two to three would have been great,” Boone said. “And to go get us an out in the fourth inning. I thought he was really good.”

From there the bullpen pieced it together with 1.1 scoreless from both Wandy Peralta and Jonathan Loaisiga and one scoreless each from Clay Holmes, Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman.

The first 161 games this year prepared the Yankees for Sunday.

“I just think our team’s really battle-tested,” Taillon said. “I’m a guy who’s never been on a team like this. I’ve never been to the playoffs. And being out there in games like today, just knowing that everyone behind me, backing me up in the bullpen has been in games like this—or obviously way bigger. That kind of eased my mind and eased my confidence a little bit.”

And that is what the Yankees will rely on heading into Tuesday night’s game.

“It’s been a crazy, wild, tough year,” Boone said. “It’s fitting that it would come down to the last day to get in.

“But I love our group, I love our guys. I love our compete,” Boone continued. “It hasn’t always been perfect but we’re ready to take our shot and feel like we know we can beat anyone when we’re at our best.”