Tommy Pham chose to challenge Aaron Judge’s arm Thursday night.
Bad move, Tommy.
Pham lined a drive into the rightfield corner and off the wall to begin the ninth inning of a tie game. It appeared to be a double, but when he tried for second, Judge threw him out with a pinpoint throw to shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
That surprised no one — Pham included.
“There’s not many guys who can make that play,” Pham told reporters after the Yankees’ 5-4 victory, accomplished on Josh Donaldson’s walk-off RBI single in the 10th. “Judge is one of the few who can. That’s an area of his game. Judge is one of the most complete players in the game.”
It's an area of Judge’s game that has been overshadowed by the historic offensive season he has put together — his pursuit of Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 homers (Judge entered Friday night at 60 with 13 games remaining) as well as a legitimate chance of winning the AL Triple Crown (Judge has clinched first in home runs and almost certainly will lead in RBIs; he led Boston's Xander Bogaerts by a percentage point and Minnesota's Luis Arraez by two points in batting average).
"We talk about the 60 and the Triple Crown and all that, but another next level that makes him so special is how complete a player he is," Aaron Boone said of Judge’s defense, speaking specifically of his throw to get Pham. "That was a little peek at that."
Judge’s defensive abilities are not a surprise, at least not to the Yankees.
He was viewed by more than a few scouts, including some with the Yankees, as a five-tool player when he was taken in the first round (30th overall) out of Fresno State in the 2013 draft.
And though the 6-7, 282-pound Judge playing as much in centerfield this season as he has — and as effectively as he has — is treated as some kind of novelty in some circles, it’s the only position he played at Fresno State.
“The interesting thing about Judge and centerfield is that’s the only position we ever saw him play, and he was good then,” said Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ longtime amateur director of domestic scouting. “Really saw no reason why he couldn’t play there at an above-average level in the major leagues when we saw him as a kid. His speed was good and his instincts and reads were very good. That and the fact he could really throw with plus accuracy made it no reason to doubt his chances to be an above-average major-league centerfielder.”
Oppenheimer added: “He has always busted his butt to be a complete player and he deserves all the credit for what he’s doing.”
Kiner-Falefa, who received Judge’s throw Thursday, was still shaking his head about it Friday afternoon.
“I went back and watched it [after Thursday’s game] and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Kiner-Falefa said Friday, saying his first thought off the bat was that Pham had a double. “It [the throw] was an absolute pipe.”
Said Donaldson: “[Judge] couldn’t have handed the ball [to Kiner-Falefa] any better.”
Donaldson, who earned 2015 AL MVP honors while with the Blue Jays, later said: “Look, he does everything great. He’s a great ballplayer, and he affects the game in so many ways, even when he’s not hitting homers like he normally does. The defensive side, baserunning side, just a complete player.”
Pham wasn’t the only member of the Red Sox blown away.
“I mean, the guy is amazing. That play he made, changed the game,” Boston manager Alex Cora said. “He’s not only hitting. And we can talk a lot about him, throughout the night, what he did today was really good. He didn't get hits, he got walks, but he changed the game with the throw to second base, and that's what MVPs do. He's been like that the whole season for them. There's a reason they are where they are, and he's a huge part of what they are trying to accomplish.”
Judge, who takes as much pride in his defense as his offense, was typically nonchalant about what both sides saw as the play of the night.
“I’m just trying to make a play like anybody else,” he said.
But it was a play, as both sides pointed out, that not just anybody could have made.