Josh Donaldson knew the ball left the park the second it left his bat. And the New York Yankees needed this one.
Down 7-4 going into the bottom of the 10th inning, they were facing a sweep by the Tampa Bay Rays and their fourth straight loss when Donaldson came to the plate. But as his line-drive grand slam exited the park, Donaldson knew the victory meant more to the Yankees in the bigger picture amid their roughest stretch this season. The 8-7 walk-off win marked only their third win this month, as they have dropped 11 games since the start of August.
“The guys were pumped, and I think as we talked about how the game progressed and how the back-and-forth battle happened there, we came back with our backs against the wall,” Donaldson said. “There was a release of some joy and frustration.”
The Rays took the lead in the 10th inning when Francisco Mejia hit a bases-loaded double with two outs, scoring Roman Quinn, Isaac Paredes and Taylor Walls. Amid the Yankees’ recent struggles with their late-inning relief and with Clay Holmes placed on the injured list earlier Wednesday after his worst stretch of the season, closer Aroldis Chapman seemed to exacerbate those issues, allowing two earned runs on one hit in two-thirds of an inning.
Even as New York’s chances of winning took a major hit — dropping to 9.1% heading into the bottom of the 10th, according to FanGraphs — the Yankees believed they could still pull out the victory.
“We never lose the vibe in the dugout when we were losing,” said third baseman Oswaldo Cabrera, who made his major league debut Wednesday. “That was the key for today.”
With Aaron Judge standing on second base to start the inning, Gleyber Torres knocked a line-drive single to right field before a four-pitch walk to first baseman Anthony Rizzo brought Donaldson, the designated hitter, up to the plate with the bases loaded. With an 0-1 count, Donaldson took a pitch high in the zone and knocked the 96.6 mph fastball from Rays pitcher Jalen Beeks over the fence, sending Yankee Stadium into a frenzy.
“Just a great fight all night. Obviously it has not been easy for us,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We’re in the fight and we keep fighting, and great to see that level of at-bat when it looked like it was stripped from us.”
With the Yankees struggling, there have been calls from the fan base to bench Donaldson to give other players more time in the lineup. Donaldson has had one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, hitting .223/.307/.391 with 12 homers in 97 games, with two years and $50 million remaining on his contract. Despite the noise, Boone has stuck with Donaldson, a decision that paid off at least for Wednesday night.
“Huge. He’s been grinding a lot, especially lately, trying to get on track,” Boone said. “He’s a great player and a great hitter, and I keep believing it’s going to show up on an extended period here, and that’s as big as you can get right there.”
While the win didn’t snap the Yankees’ streak of losing their past five series — against the Rays, Red Sox, Cardinals and Mariners (twice) — the evening did represent at least a momentary breath of fresh air as New York walked away in dramatic fashion with a victory that seemed distant going into the bottom of the 10th.
“Obviously with the stretch we’re going in, it was a great victory, no question, against a really good team that’s tough to score against, especially behind when you’re behind like we were,” Boone said.
The key for the Yankees will be taking the victory and turning it into momentum for a team that has looked like a shell of itself since the All-Star break.
“We know we’re a really good team. We’re struggling right now and going through it,” Boone said. “At the core, we know it’s a confident group. We’ve got to focus and grind and get through it, and that was a special one that hopefully we can look back on fondly.”