Reds' Fernando Cruz takes on Aaron Judge, wins: 'I know who you are, but I'm here'

NEW YORK — Of course Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell considered walking — or at least pitching around — Aaron Judge.

“He’s the best hitter in the world, there’s no secret about it,” said Reds reliever Fernando Cruz, who got Judge to ground into an inning-ending double play for the biggest outs of the Reds’ 3-2 victory over the New York Yankees on Wednesday night in front of a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium.

The day after Judge pounced on a first-pitch fastball in the seventh inning off a Reds reliever for his 32nd home run of the season, he was up again in the seventh, this time with runners on the corners, one out and the Yankees down by a run.

The book says you don’t think about moving the go-ahead run into scoring position or loading the bases, especially with a pitcher on the mound who had just bounced a couple of his particularly nasty split-finger fastballs to the previous batter.

The counterargument is pretty simple: Aaron Judge.

(OK, and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Yankees’ lineup behind Judge, starting with J.D. Davis and his .643 OPS and four homers hitting in the cleanup spot behind Judge.)

It seems every time Judge comes up to the plate at Yankee Stadium, there’s another statistic trying to contextualize what Judge is doing so far this season. Each factoid seems to say he’s the first Yankee since Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio or some other inner-circle Hall of Famer to be doing what he’s doing.

Judge is the last person Bell or any Reds fan wanted to see at the plate with the game on the line. But he’s the first person Cruz wanted to see.

Of course, he had to be reminded of that first, by Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson.

Starter Andrew Abbott made it to the seventh inning having allowed just two hits, but when he gave up a one-out double to Jahmai Jones, Bell called on his best reliever, Cruz.

Cruz has been fantastic all season long, especially with runners on. Of the 30 runners he’d inherited this season coming into Wednesday’s game, he’d allowed just five to score. That’s 17 percent of inherited runners scoring — half of the league average.

Yet he walked the first batter he faced, pinch hitter Austin Wells, and then gave up a two-run double to leadoff man Anthony Volpe to bring the Yankees to within a run, 3-2. With Juan Soto at the plate, he fell behind, bouncing three pitches into the dirt, one allowing Volpe to get to third and the other on ball four.

Cruz’s split-finger fastball is one of the best pitches in baseball, causing whiffs 58.1 percent of the time batters swing at it. Soto didn’t swing at any of the three he saw, earning a spot on first and a visit to the mound from Johnson.

“Let him do whatever he wants, just go out there and challenge him,” Cruz said Johnson told him.

“He opened my mind to it,” Cruz said.

Catcher Tyler Stephenson first called for a cutter, the one Volpe jumped on to score two runs.

But with his mind on what Johnson said, he shook Stephenson off. Instead of going to the splitter, Cruz wanted the fastball, and that’s what Stephenson called.

“He’s still got two great pitches with the heater and cutter, and sometimes I feel like people are so aware of the splitter that Judge may have been thinking splitter there after the mound visit, and all of a sudden he sees a heater coming,” Stephenson said.

For Cruz, it really came down to the basics. Not his best pitch against the best player, but the pitch he wanted to throw.

“I don’t think you’re expecting a fastball in the middle of the plate, and I’m going to throw it to you,” Cruz said.

Throwing a fastball down the middle of the plate to Judge is far from a recipe for success. The pitch didn’t stay in the middle, instead coming in on Judge, but it was still right where Judge could do damage.

“I wanted to just throw it, and whatever happens, happens,” Cruz said. “That’s what competitors do. When you compete, it’s like, ‘I’m here. I know who you are. But I’m here.’ You have to compete.”

Behind the plate, Stephenson saw the ball hit well, but into the ground and right to third baseman Noelvi Marte, who threw it to Jonathan India at second for the second out and then on to first to get out of the inning. He watched each throw carefully, and when Jeimer Candelario squeezed the ball, he looked over at the bench, where he immediately saw Johnson.

“DJ’s sitting in his little corner going crazy,” said Stephenson, who said he was hoping to go back and find video of Johnson’s reaction.

Johnson wasn’t alone. The rest of the team knew those were the two biggest outs of the game. Lucas Sims and former Yankee Justin Wilson got through the eighth inning before Alexis Díaz walked the first batter he faced in the ninth inning. Díaz got Volpe to ground into another double play and then Soto to fly out to left, ending the game without Judge getting a shot at redemption.

Had Bell chosen to walk Judge in the seventh, even if Cruz had gotten out of the inning with the lead, Judge would’ve likely had another chance in the ninth. Instead of hiding from Judge, the Reds and Cruz went after him, and they won that battle.

“I don’t really know what the right call is in that situation,” Abbott said of Bell’s call in the seventh inning. “But in hindsight, you’re looking at it and saying it worked out for us that time.”

(Photo: Gregory Fisher / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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