Earlier this morning I listed the five biggest hits of the Yankees season using WPA, but I think we all know that isn’t a perfect metric. It’s great for reference but has little analytical value because it lacks context. Context in terms of who is batting, who is pitching, the team’s place in the standings, so on and so forth. The biggest hit of the Yankees season, or at least what I think was the biggest hit of the Yankees season, didn’t make this morning’s list.
Let’s set the stage. The calender had just flipped to September, and there was much rejoicing because Jesus Montero was finally a big leaguer. The Yankees were in Fenway Park and were one game back of the almighty Red Sox in the loss column, having closed the gap in the AL East from two games to half-a-game over the four previous days. We had no idea the Sox were in full collapse mode at the time, and this game was one New York really needed if they were serious about winning the division.
The Yankees scored one-run off Jon Lester in the first inning, but it could have been more had Montero not struck out with the bases loaded in his first career at-bat. Boston scored a pair of runs off A.J. Burnett in the fourth inning on a Dustin Pedroia homer to dead center, and the score remained 2-1 into the seventh inning. Former Yankee Al Aceves was on the mound was on the mound for the Sox, having just pitched around two singles, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch the inning prior.
The seventh inning started with a six-pitch strikeout by Nick Swisher, but Andruw Jones got the party started by drawing a one-out walk after a 14-pitch at-bat, the second longest plate appearance of the Yankees season. In came pinch-runner Chris Dickerson, who moved to second after Aceves hit Montero with a pitch. That’s what the box score says, but in reality the pitch just grazed the front of his jersey. The Yankees needed baserunners at the time, so they were taking them any way they could. After 42 pitches and four outs, Aceves was done and Daniel Bard marched out of the bullpen.
Russell Martin was up next, having singled to left last time up after a ground out and strikeout in his first two at-bats. Bard was not messing around, starting Martin off with two sliders down and away for two quick swings and misses. The Yankees’ catcher was already down in the count 0-2, and he had yet to see the triple-digit heat. Bard’s third pitch was a 97 mph fastball up for ball one, the fourth pitch a 98 mph fastball just off the plate for ball two. I remember watching that pitch on television and wondering how in the world he laid off it. The fifth pitch was another 98 mph fastball, this one well outside for another ball. Just getting the count back full after falling into an 0-2 hole against a dominant power pitcher was a minor miracle.
The fastball wasn’t working, so Bard went back to the down and away slider. Martin fouled it off to stay alive, stretching the at-bat to at least seven pitches. The next pitch, a 97 mph heater was a mistake pitch up the zone, but that’s the point of working the count. The more pitches a pitcher has to throw in an at-bat, the more likely he is to make a mistake. Martin jumped all over the pitch, driving it into the right-center field gap. Both Dickerson and Montero were running on the 3-2 pitch, perhaps to avoid the double play, and both came around to score. Martin doubled but it was effectively a triple because he took third on the throw to the plate.
The hit, which registered at +0.37 WPA, turned that 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. Eric Chavez pinch-hit for Eduardo Nunez one batter later and drove in Martin for an all-important insurance run, but that’s almost an afterthought. Martin’s hit gave his team the lead and completely silenced the Fenway crowd, a crowd that came to the park knowing the Sox were 11-3 against the Yankees at that point of the season. That record didn’t matter though, because a few innings later, after Mariano Rivera froze Adrian Gonzalez with a cutter for strike three, the two teams were tied atop the division.
The Yankees never looked back after that. They took over sole possession of the AL East three days later with a win over the Blue Jays, and they did nothing but increase that lead the rest of the way. The Red Sox spiraled into a tailspin in September, losing 19 of their final 26 games to complete The Collapse. Martin’s go-ahead double on that Thursday evening in New England didn’t start the fall of the Red Sox, but I sure love pretending it did. That one swing seemed to change everything for both teams.