A few innings before Aaron Judge took charge of a baseball game the way he often does — by hitting baseballs over and off outfield walls — he was involved in a madcap baserunning incident on Tuesday that was confounding, amusing and then overshadowed by the Yankees’ late-inning rally.
It was a play that involved, among other things, an attempt to double off Judge on a fly ball, a base that Judge failed to touch, a replay review, an aborted appeal attempt, two balls on the field at the same time, and a very shrewd if unsuccessful tactical move by the Yankees. Baseball could be played for another 150 years without a play like it ever happening again.
In the scorebook for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, it reads as Judge being thrown out attempting to steal second base in the fourth inning of the Yankees’ dramatic 6-4 comeback victory win over the Houston Astros.
But that hardly hints at what actually occurred.
It began with one out and Judge on first base in a scoreless game. Judge then took off on a hit-and-run play, and Gary Sanchez lifted a fly ball to shallow right field. The ball was caught on the run by right fielder Josh Reddick, and Judge, who had already rounded second, scrambled to beat Reddick’s throw to first to avoid being doubled up.
The play was close, but Judge was called out as he slid into the first-base bag. It seemed as if the Astros had pulled off a double play to end the inning.
But the Yankees thought Judge was safe at first and called for a video review. As the play was shown on the large video board, something else became apparent to the 48,000 paying customers at Yankee Stadium, plus the Houston dugout: Judge had failed to again touch second base on his race back to first. By rule, a runner must do so if he is retreating on the basepaths.
“The screen is as big as the state of New York,” Astros Manager A. J. Hinch said. “We could see he didn’t touch second base on the way back.”
But first came the Yankees’ appeal of the play at first. The umpires ruled that Judge was indeed safe, that he had beaten the Houston throw and was not doubled off.
Then it was the Astros’ turn. Hinch went to the umpires and notified them that he would be making an appeal (not to be confused with a video review request) that Judge failed to touch second base when he ran back to first.
But the Yankees also saw that Judge had failed to retouch second base and that he was about to be called out for his snafu. So they began scheming. The appeal by the Astros could only be enacted after the umpires said the game was back in play. At that point, the Houston pitcher, Lance McCullers, would throw the ball to second base, the one Judge had missed, and Judge would presumably be called out.
But if Judge took off for second and stole it before the Astros got the ball to second to officially ask for the appeal, he would create what is called an “intervening play” and nullify the Astros’ appeal attempt.
“I was going to be out no matter what,” Judge said. “Why not try?”
Still, the story got even more complicated at that point. The first attempt by the Astros to throw the ball to second and start the appeal was waved off by the umpires because they realized there were two baseballs on the field. Why? Because the Houston infielders had begun throwing an extra ball around to stay loose while the Yankees’ replay review dragged on.
The extra ball was removed from the field and McCullers returned to the pitching rubber with the intention of again throwing the ball to second base to initiate the appeal. But before he could do so, Manager Joe Girardi could be seen in the dugout waving to Judge to take off for second.
He did. Judge has good speed for his size and stole nine bases this year. So while he did not beat McCullers’s throw to second and was tagged out — nullifying any need for the appeal — the play was closer than perhaps it should have been, from the Astros’ perspective.
“Pretty smart play by them trying to steal that base,” Hinch said. “We were fortunate to get the tag.”
It all proved academic anyway. Judge hit a home run in the seventh that cut the Astros’ lead to 4-1. Then, in one of his best at-bats of the year, he stroked a 2-2 slider from Ken Giles to left field that scored Didi Gregorius from first base and tied the score at 4-4.
The fans erupted, in stark contrast to the silence that reigned when Judge was thrown out at second four innings before.
“To be out there with the crowd and the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Judge said.
He was talking about his heroics. But the unusual sequence of events in the fourth inning was pretty unbelievable, too.