For one night, Yankee magic returned to the Bronx. Derek Jeter ended his final game at Yankee Stadium with one of his trademark inside-out singles to right field for a walk-off win over the Orioles. The final score was 6-5.
What an awkward start to the game. Yankee Stadium was rocking, the Bleacher Creatures were giving the Roll Call of a lifetime, and then Nick Markakis launched a monster solo homer into the second deck in right field to lead off the first inning. Then, four pitches later, Alejandro De Aza gave the Orioles a 2-0 lead with another long solo homer, this one longer than Markakis’ according to the official measurements (390 vs. 383 feet). The ballpark in the Bronx was electric and then all the air was let out of the balloon with two swings. Yeah.
Thankfully, those back-to-back homers were quickly erased from memory. The Yankees rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the first and Jeter was right smack in the middle of the rally. He doubled in Brett Gardner for the team’s first run — I thought it was gone off the bat, he missed a homer by about two feet when it clanked off the left-center field wall — then scored the game-tying run later in the inning, after moving to third on a wild pitch and coming home on Brian McCann’s ground ball to second. This seemed like that would be Jeter’s big hit for the night, but lol to that.
Hiroki Kuroda’s likely final start as a Yankee went the way so many of his other starts have gone these last few years. He gave up the two runs in the first, then settled right down and took the ball deep into the game. Kuroda allowed just two base-runners after the first inning — Kelly Johnson reached on a Jeter’s throwing error in the second and De Aza singled in the third — and retired the final 16 men he faced. After those two first inning homers, he turned into vintage Kuroda, mowing down hitters and looking like he could pitch another five years if he wanted.
By Game Score (77), this was Kuroda’s best start of the season and best since last August (box score). His nine strikeouts were not just a season high, they were more than he had in any start last year as well. The last time Kuroda struck out 9+ came in September 2012, when he struck out ten Rays (box score). The final pitching line was two runs on three hits and no walks in eight innings with nine strikeouts and nine ground ball outs. Kuroda never did get any kind of big ovation. He was lifted from the game after the eighth inning and that was that. Unless Kuroda surprisingly returns in 2015, it was a fittingly unceremonious end to a marvelous three-year career in pinstripes.
Signature Moment, Part I
The score remained 2-2 until the seventh inning — the Yankees did not have a hit and only put two men on base in the second through sixth innings — when Jeter gave the Yankees the lead in what everyone thought was his final Yankee Stadium at-bat. The inning started with Stephen Drew striking out and reaching first base on a wild pitch, capping off an awful defensive night for the O’s. Ichiro Suzuki followed that with a walk, then Jose Pirela reached when pitcher T.J. McFarland pulled first baseman Steve Pearce off the bag with a throw on his bunt attempt. The Yankees loaded the bases with no outs while hitting the ball maybe 20 feet total.
That brought Gardner to the plate with a chance to give the Yankees the lead, but, with Jeter looming in the on deck circle, I got the sense no out would have cared if Brett struck out. Well, he didn’t strike out, he just grounded into a 3-1 put-out. The bases remained loaded for Jeter, who hit a weak tapper to J.J. Hardy at short. Too weak to turn two, I thought. Hardy flipped to second for the force out, but the throw was wide of the bag and the ball sailed into right field, scoring two runs. Was it the classic Jeter moment we all expected? Nope. Did it get the job done? Hell yes. McCann plated the third run of the inning with a sacrifice fly as the next batter, giving the Yankees a 5-2 lead. That was the first ball to leave the infield in the inning.
David Robertson will forever be remembered for the best blown save in baseball history. Like many other people, I watched the ninth inning wondering when Brendan Ryan would trot out of the dugout to replace Jeter so the Cap’n could get one last grand send-off in his final game. That never happened, and while we waited the Orioles scored three runs to tie the game. Adam Jones hit a two-run homer to bring Baltimore to within a run, then Pearce hit a solo homer to knot things up. I mean, what? How did that happen? Ultimately, the baseball gods had another, much cooler ending planned for this game.
Signature Moment, Part II
As soon as Pirela singled leading off the bottom of the ninth, the script wrote itself. Gardner would bunt pinch-runner Antoan Richardson up to second and Jeter would drive him in for the game winning run. Right? Right. Sometimes you can predict baseball, Suzyn. Gardner did indeed bunt Richardson to second, and Jeter did indeed drive him in with a walk-off single. He jumped all over Evan Meek’s first pitch middle-middle fastball and laced it to right field for a classic Jeterian hit. We’ve seen that same hit about 3,000 times now. Richardson chugged around third and slid into home plate safely to score the team’s most memorable run in a long, long time.
Something weird happened following the walk-off hit: Jeter showed some emotion. And I don’t mean his little fist pump that usually follows wins either. Jeter literally jumped for joy after seeing Richardson score the game winning run. Derek’s face showed relief as much as it did excitement. He said following the game that his main thought all night was “don’t cry” — cameras showed him struggling to fight back tears a few times, especially when the “Der-Ek Je-Ter!” chants got louder in the late innings — and that hit allowed him to finally relax. His perpetual all business stare had finally been erased. Outside of winning the World Series, I can’t ever remember seeing Jeter that happy on a baseball field. I will always remember this walk-off hit for Jeter’s rarely seen sense of pure joy as I will the outcome of the game.
All told, Jeter went 2-for-5 with a run scored and three runs driven in on the night. He went 12-for-34 (.353) during the eight-game homestand. Jeter said after the game he will play this weekend out of respect for the fans, but he will not play shortstop. He will pinch-hit or DH only. It would be amazing if the walk-off hit was his final act on a baseball field, but I get it. Not playing this weekend never seemed all that realistic.
Pirela had two hits and both Gardner and Chris Young had one each. Chase Headley, Young, and Ichiro drew walks. That’s it for the offense. The Yankees went 2-for-7 (.286) with runners in scoring position and one of those two hits didn’t even score a run. It was Pirela’s sac bunt attempt in the seventh. Whatever. They scored enough runs to win. That’s all I care about.
Robertson’s blown save was his fifth of the season. He said after the game that “it created another Derek Jeter moment. As much as I wished I wouldn’t have created it, I’m glad it happened.” It’s easy to forget this might have been Robertson’s last game in the Bronx as a Yankee as well.
Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs has some other game stats, and ESPN has the updated standings. At +.602 WPA, Jeter had the team’s third “biggest” game of the season. Only Carlos Beltran’s walk-off homer against the Orioles (+.930) and Young’s walk-off homer against the Rays (+.671) were bigger.
Only one series left in the season. The Yankee are off to Boston for three totally meaningless games against the Red Sox this weekend. Both teams have already been eliminated from postseason contention, so the only thing on the line is bragging rights. Chris Capuano and knuckleballer Steve Wright will be on the mound Friday night.