NEW YORK — It was the sort of situation — two men out and one man on, two-run lead in the seventh inning and the biggest, baddest slugger in baseball taking aim at the bleachers — that inspired New York’s own Billy Joel to write a song.
For most pitchers, sure. But Boston Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly routinely throws a fastball in excess of 100 mph, and given the circumstance Tuesday night, he reached back for another tick or two of velocity to strike out New York Yankees rookie sensation Aaron Judge in an eventual 5-4 victory in the opener of a three-game showdown at Yankee Stadium.
Kelly uncorked six pitches to Judge, three of which were clocked by Statcast among the 11 fastest pitches thrown in the majors this season. The fifth pitch of the at-bat was initially recorded as 103.5 mph but later downgraded to 102.2 mph, which still matches an April 28 heater from Kelly to Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo as the fastest pitch of the season.
“It’s very fast,” Red Sox manager John Farrell deadpanned.
Said catcher Christian Vazquez: “Fast. Coming in hot, like a closer.”
Kelly faced Judge once before, April 26 at Fenway Park, and struck out the 6-foot-7, 282-pound right fielder on a high fastball. But that didn’t compel Kelly to alter his plan with the lead hanging in the balance Tuesday night.
Besides, if you’re able to ratchet your fastball to triple digits, not doing so would be like Superman deciding to run rather than fly while pursuing the villainous Lex Luthor.
“Obviously one of the best hitters in the league right now, especially in a tight game like that, you’ve got to be very, very cautious with a guy who’s hitting the ball and seeing the ball that well,” said Kelly, who hasn’t allowed a run since April 30, a span of 12 innings. “So, you’ve just got to move it around the zone on him a little bit, make some pitches, try not to give into the strike zone. Because one swing of the bat, you know what could’ve happened there.”
Kelly started with a 101.5-mph fastball that Judge fouled off. After another fastball out of the strike zone, he mixed in a slider that Judge hit foul. Ahead in the count, Kelly came back with two fastballs, one for a ball and the 102.2-mph burner that Judge fouled off.
Watching from his position in center field, Jackie Bradley Jr. was astounded.
“I was actually surprised at some of the balls that he was catching up with,” Bradley said. “I was like, God, how is he getting to that ball, Aaron? That was amazing for him — to be so big, everything is quick, fast. That was a short swing. Power against power, and fortunately, Joe won that battle.”
Kelly won it with a slider that Judge swung through to end the inning. The Yankees scored one run in the eighth against Matt Barnes, but closer Craig Kimbrel slammed the door with a four-out save that featured five strikeouts, including one that finished with a wild pitch and enabled Didi Gregorius to reach base.
But it was Kelly’s velocity that had the Red Sox talking after the game. Kelly said he was unaware of the initial 103.5-mph radar gun reading until he returned to the dugout after striking out Judge.
“[Second baseman Dustin Pedroia] told me,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know about that until he mentioned something. It wasn’t something I was trying to go out there and try to blow it out. It’s just heat of the moment, high-intensity situation, one of the best hitters in the league. Try to come at him with all my stuff that I had.”
And then some.