The champagne and Budweiser were on ice at the Rogers Center Wednesday night, and the Blue Jays were ready to celebrate.
Early and often was the game plan, with goals still to be achieved before the end of the season of such high hopes in 2022.
Instead, history and one of the best home run hitters in baseball’s modern era got in the way, putting the party plans on hold for at least another day.
The great Aaron Judge and his relentless pursuit of baseball immortality ended the Jays’ pursuit on what will ultimately be remembered as a special night downtown.
The New York Yankees superstar launched a 394-foot line drive over the left field wall in the seventh inning, leading his team to an 8-3 victory while cementing a place in Yankees lore.
Home run No. 61 of this prolific power season came from Jays lefty Tim Maiza in the seventh inning of what the Jays hoped would be a night that ended with a win for a playoff berth.
It was a monster blast at that, a two-run shot that was sent thundering off Judge’s bat at 117 mph and matching the American League home run record of 61 set by former Yankee Roger Maris 61 years ago.
“To get a chance to be associated with one of the greats of the Yankees, one of the greats of baseball … to be sealed with him forever, words can’t describe it,” said the stylish and humble umpire after his night for the ages. “That’s one of the things that’s so special about the Yankees organization.”
The landmark shot ended a seven-game homer drought for Judge and added to a forgettable visit in Toronto for the Yankees, who had clinched the American League East title the night before.
“He’s a good hitter, he’s having a great year, hitting the ball extremely hard,” Jays manager John Schneider said of Judge. “Tough guy to homer in Timmy Maiza.
“Give credit to a good hitter who is having a really good year.”
The Jays, who entered their 156th game with the magic number two to clinch a playoff spot, can still clinch one on Thursday’s off day. If the Baltimore Orioles lose against the Red Sox at Fenway Park — after falling 3-1 in Boston on Wednesday — the Jays will claim one of three AL wild-card tickets.
Back to the festivities on Wednesday – good for the visitors, not so much for the home nine. In the opener, the Jays were shut down by another Yankee great as starter Gerrit Cole pitched five perfect innings before Danny Jansen smacked a leadoff homer in the sixth to end that bid.
When the Jays cashed in two more in the inning, suddenly the game was 3-3 and the party-ready crowd of 37,008 at Rogers Center erupted in anticipation for more.
Instead, the stage was set and the moment finally arrived for Judge, who had been repeatedly outplayed in the three-game series. When he struck out in the first inning Wednesday, it was his fifth straight free pass and his seventh of the series, the first time a Yankees hitter has done so against the Jays.
Perhaps that led to some power retention as the sweetly swinging shot unleashed one of his best and delivered a bang for the ages.
The ball came out of the park in a hurry, crashing off the wall above the Jays’ bullpen, just out of reach of fans clamoring for a potentially lucrative piece of history.
“I tried not to change anything with my approach,” Judge said. “My game plan is what got me this far. If that means I have to walk, I have to walk.
“I thought I had enough of him, but you never know if it’s going to come out.
Zooming out to the bigger picture of the Jays’ postseason pursuit, they’re getting close enough now to taste it. Task No. 1 is to get in, which could happen on Thursday’s off day if the Red Sox pitch one more time.
But chief among the goals is securing the top wild-card seed, which will be up for grabs next Friday as the best-of-three series opener at the Rogers Centre.
They thought there was an opportunity on Wednesday and are looking forward to the next one. If the Red Sox don’t help Thursday, ace Alec Manoa will take the ball here Friday night in the first of a three-game weekend against the Red Sox.
“Obviously you’re following the results from out of town a little bit,” Schneider said. “Not tonight, hopefully soon.
“These guys are excited to be in this position. It’s more excitement than nerves or anything. The boys will be ready to go out and play on Friday night.
“I hope you take care of your business and move on.
They’ve seen enough of the Yankees’ festivities the past two nights. Now they are ready for some of them.
Apparently Maiza didn’t want to be a mainstay in the referee’s career highlight, but he explained the approach during the historic fight
“I feel like we attacked him,” Maiza said. “I just wanted to attack him with sinkers and try to put the ball on the ground, and he did a pretty good job with the bat.
“Congratulations to him. I just left one too many pitches over the plate to a really good hitter.”
At the moment of contact Maiza was aware of what was happening.
“I had an idea with the trajectory and how hard the ball was hit that there was a good chance,” Maiza said.
AROUND THE BASES
Jansen’s home run was his career-high 14th, surpassing the 13 he hit in 2019… With the loss, the Jays dropped two of three to the Yanks, their first loss in their last nine series… As they move to the clinch, could the streaky Jays be considered a long shot to win the World Series? Current prices at Bodog show them as 15-1 seventh choice. The Los Angeles Dodgers remain the heavy favorite at 3-1… With 87 wins and six games remaining, the Jays will need to go 4-2 to match last season’s 91-win total.
The Blue Jays turn their form around in a sloppy loss that allows the Yankees to clinch the AL East
Bettors have a chance to cash in on New York Yankees Aaron Judge’s historic homer