Chan Ho Park and Steve Trachsel and Tracy Stallard — three reasonably accomplished pitchers, two of whom you’ve definitely heard of and one guy you might know if you’re pretty old or the captain of your sports trivia league.
They all have a single thing in common: They were on the mound when someone — either Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or, in Stallard’s case, Roger Maris — broke a home run record.
Here are another two names: Austin Voth and Spenser Watkins, the two Orioles pitchers who, on Saturday afternoon, did absolutely everything in their power to make sure they didn’t join them as footnotes in sports history — at times, almost laughably pitching around Aaron Judge at as he vied to break the American League home run record he shares with Maris.
Instead, Judge went 0-for-2, was hit by a pitch and walked twice. Before his fifth and final plate appearance, Judge saw only three pitches in the strike zone (to Watkins’ credit, he finally challenged Judge in the eighth and struck him out swinging on a beauty of a changeup).
And look, it’s understandable that Yankees fans are frustrated (if the unprintable jeers were any indication, they really, really are), but the truth is, it's hard to fault Voth or Watkins.
Bonds went through the same thing — once saying that all of the pitches out of the strike zone were wearing him down — as did McGwire, and both predictably led the league in walks in the years they broke home run records (Bonds received 177 in 2001 — 55 fewer than the 232 he got in 2004, when he had a ridiculous .609 on-base percentage — and McGwire got 162 in 1998).
Since hitting No. 60 on Sept. 20, Judge has gone 7-for-27 with 17 walks and a hit-by-pitch in 10 games.
“I get the conflict and it’s probably a little bit weird for every pitcher,” Aaron Boone said charitably. “I totally respect that it’s a tough situation.”
It's also too soon for fans (or anyone) to panic. The weather is iffy for Sunday, yes, and there’s a chance the Yankees-Orioles game will get scrapped altogether, as it’ll have no bearing on the final standings. But even so, Judge will have four more games against the Rangers in Texas.
Granted, it won’t be at Yankee Stadium, it won’t be on the anniversary of Maris hitting 61 (that was Saturday), and it’ll have to happen against a pitching staff that doesn’t give up all that many home runs. But Judge this year has done a good job of excelling even when the climate isn’t exactly in his favor.
It's not ideal for anyone who roots for the Yankees, sure. There's been a palpable air of excitement these last few days, the crowds numbering over 40,000. At times, Yankee Stadium has been raucous. Other times, when the pitcher goes into his windup against Judge, it's been as quiet as a cathedral. On Saturday, it was both before it turned downright hostile — a result of the few chances Judge actually got.
But all the Yankees can do while they wait is exactly what they did against the Orioles — scoring in each of the innings Judge was put on base. And though Judge was visibly annoyed at times — when he struck out swinging on what would have been ball four in the fourth, he flipped his bat in disgust — there’s little worry that this game of keep-away will negatively impact him all that much.
“I think he would have worn down a long time ago” if that was an issue, said Boone — no doubt meaning the American League-leading 110 times he’s walked already (Juan Soto led MLB with 134). “So no, I’m not concerned about that.”
Boone added: “The playoffs become a different animal altogether.”
He’s right, of course. Though opposing pitchers absolutely will continue to be careful, there are going to be plenty of chances for Judge to get something to hit. The crowd at Yankee Stadium also won’t be booing every time a pitch sails out of the strike zone — something that Boone allowed might be rattling players now.
But there’s also another factor: The playoffs are showcases for the best of the best, and the best players in baseball are going to be less likely to turn down a challenge. Even if it comes in the form of a 6-7, 282-pound behemoth who can hit the ball 450 feet.
As for the five games before that, maybe a pitcher will miss his spot. Or maybe he’ll try to challenge Judge and lose — a noble fate, even if not everyone thinks so. After all, it takes guts to become a Park or a Trachsel or a Stallard. Saturday afternoon was proof enough of that.