Aaron Hicks lay sprawled on the ground, in throbbing, searing pain from the ball he had just fouled off his ankle. The stadium shushed, the trainers came out and Hicks made his way back to his feet gingerly before hobbling to the plate to punch the Yankees’ ticket to the postseason.
In terms of grandeur, it wasn’t Kirk Gibson or Bucky Dent, but that line drive into the leftfield corner that Hicks hit in the bottom of the 11th inning Saturday -- which drove in Didi Gregorius from first base and gave the Yankees a 3-2 win over the Orioles -- had all the sort of playoff magic that can define a team’s run.
With the Rays losing earlier in the day, the Yankee clinched one of the two wild-card spots, though they’ve yet to claim home-field advantage over the Athletics. Oakland earned its second straight walk-off victory over Minnesota late Saturday night and remained 1 1/2 games behind the Yankees.
“For a minute there, I wasn’t even sure he was going to finish the at-bat,” Aaron Boone said of Hicks. “I think he was just being dramatic, maybe.”
Dramatic? Definitely. Just maybe not in the usual sense.
Hicks hit his 26th homer of the season while batting lefthanded earlier in the game and was batting righthanded when he hit his one-out double. “Aaron, when you really peel the curtain back, he’s a great player, and it’s been exciting to see him evolve as one of the really good players in this league,” Boone said.
Afterward, the party was raucous – both on the field and in the champagne-soaked clubhouse.
Hicks was mobbed so hard after his hit, he said, that someone broke his chain; it’ll have to be a bracelet now. X-rays of his ankle were clean, but it was wrapped and his limp was noticeable, and to hear him tell it, it probably hurt even worse than it looked.
“It hurts, for sure,” he said. “It’s going to be sore tomorrow, that’s for sure. I think after I hit the ball, it was all adrenaline going from there.”
That didn’t stop Hicks from joining the party, though, and he was in the thick of things as his teammates popped bottles and Cardi B blasted in the background. He left for the trainer’s room shortly afterward, and when he came back, someone had planted a bottle of Ace of Spades champagne – worth hundreds of dollars – on his chair. (That one’s for sipping, he clarified, not spilling.)
“It’s awesome,” Hicks said. “I was jumping up with them” despite the balky leg.
The Yankees (95-59) struggled to get much of anything going against the Orioles (44-110). Lance Lynn performed well enough, holding Baltimore to two runs (one earned) in five innings, and the Yankees took a 2-0 lead in the second on home runs by Hicks and Luke Voit. But that’s when everything stalled.
Between Miguel Andujar's double in the fourth and Gregorius’ leadoff single in the 11th, the Yankees collected only a single hit. But one out after Gregorius’ well-struck liner off Paul Fry set the stage, Hicks delivered the drama: His double hugged the leftfield line and bounced off the wall, and Gregorius never stopped running.
“He better!” Hicks said when asked if he thought Gregorius would make it home. “Wild card on the line? You gotta go!”
In what would have been a close play at the plate, Gregorius scored with a headfirst slide as Orioles catcher Austin Wynns was unable to hold on to the throw. “I was going all the way – try to score no matter what,'' Gregorius said. "I put my head down and started running…My hands went up right away [when I hit the plate].”
It made a prophet out of Boone, who, before the game, called Hicks “one of the most underrated players in the game.”
“You understand some of the star players we have, some of the really good players that we have,” he said. “I feel like [Hicks is] overlooked with our club.”
But that’s the funny thing with playoff magic – even in September, it can make invisible players larger than life.