ST. PETERSBURG — Aaron Judge hit his 53rd home run of the season and scored the Yankees’ only other run to beat the Rays 2-1 at Tropicana Field on Sunday and stop the Bombers’ skid.
It was the first win in four games for the Yankees (80-54) and they ended this miserable road trip 4-6 at least on a win. The Rays (74-58) had already taken the series and have cut into the Bombers’ once commanding lead into the American League East. The Yankees return home with a five-game lead in the division, four games in the loss column.
“We need them all, it doesn’t matter what happens,” Judge said of getting the much-needed win. “We were focused on today and we didn’t focus on the past few days. I think that’s what helped us go out there and get the win today.”
Judge and Frankie Montas helped them get the win.
Judge set the tone on the very first pitch of the game. He crushed it for a 450-foot home run into the second deck in left field. His major league-leading 53rd homer of the season was a career high, surpassing his rookie season total of 52 homers.
Judge, on pace to hit 64 home runs this season, is eight shy of Roger Maris’ American league record of 61, set back in 1961, with 28 games to play.
Judge also doubled to lead off the seventh, aggressively took third on DJ LeMahieu’s ground ball to shortstop.
“I peeked at where the shortstop was and based on where it was hit I got a chance to get in there and I think it was the right choice,” Judge said.
It turned out to be when Oswaldo Cabrera brought him home on a sacrifice fly.
“I mean, what more can you say? We need to get other guys going. We need to keep working at it to get guys going. A big sac fly by Cabrera today,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “But Aaron’s just in every aspect, setting the tone with the homer, seeing the slide on TV up here, getting to third base there to score on the sacrifice fly on the next play was huge. He’s just playing it at an incredible level.”
He’s playing at another level from the rest of the lineup, that’s for sure.
Judge went into Sunday’s game slashing .326/.475/.783 with 19 homers and 44 RBI since the All-Star break. The rest of the lineup is hitting .197/.254/.275 with 10 homers.
Sunday, Judge went 3-for-5 with the home run.
“My job at the top of the lineup is just trying to get on base for the guys behind me, so that’s what I was trying to do there in the first inning, especially with a guy like (Ray’s starter Shawn) Armstrong, he’s got a good little sinker/cutter combo,” Judge said. “Was just trying to put something in play and got lucky on the first few pitches, I was able to get something over the plate.”
The rest of the lineup went 3-for-30 with five strikeouts Sunday.
Frankie Montas had his best start since he was traded by the A’s to the Yankees in July at the trade deadline.
The right-hander who has been disappointing with a 7.01 ERA in his first five starts as a Yankee, struck out seven and allowed just one hit over five innings of work.
But this road trip that has been brutal wouldn’t end easily.
Clay Holmes allowed the Rays’ run in the ninth after giving up a leadoff double to David Peralta and an RBI single to pinch hitter Francisco Mejia. Jonathan Aranda hit a two-out double to move Mejia to third. Holmes fell behind Yandy Diaz 2-0 and battled back to strike him out looking.
Even the starting pitcher found some inspiration in having Judge go out and set the tone Sunday.
“Judge is a grinder. I know he goes out there and gives his all, trying to give 100 percent,” Montas said. “Then maybe when you see one of the best hitters, homers, that kind of sets the tone and that gives you the confidence to go out there trying to do your part too.”