TORONTO -- From a near August collapse to a late September clinch.
What seemed predestined when the New York Yankees were the best team in baseball in the first half of the season and looked doubtful with their subpar play in the second half, was made official Tuesday night. A 5-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays gave the Yankees their 20th American League East title.
It's the first divisional pennant for New York since 2019, which was also the year that Aaron Boone won his first title as a manager.
"Really proud of the guys. It's the toughest division to win ... every team's a battle," Boone said after Tuesday night's win at Rogers Centre. "You got to pack a lunch, as I like to say, when you're playing these teams. Especially at the start, probably most people picked a lot of other teams. We got off to a great start, obviously weathered the storm. These guys never really panicked or never lost that underlying confidence that even when we were going through some dark, tough times, that we were going to be able to get through it, and hopefully makes us stronger going forward.
"We're going to celebrate tonight and get on with the business of, obviously, we've got bigger goals. We want to win a championship. That's our stated goal. But tonight deserves to be celebrated in the gauntlet that is the AL East."
Gleyber Torres had three hits and three RBIs, and Aaron Judge walked four times in pursuit of his 61st home run in the victory. Batting out of the leadoff spot, Judge, who extended his homerless streak to seven games, finished 0-for-1 with two runs to go along with the four free passes.
"I'll take four walks for a win every single day," he said.
The Yankees, who at times appeared as if they'd run away from the AL pack before stumbling through August, held a 15½ game divisional lead in July but saw it dwindle to 3½ games in early September. Nonetheless, Judge said their belief in being AL East champions never faltered.
"What makes this team special is that guys didn't waver, they showed up to work every single day right to go out there and help us win," he said. "When you got a mindset like that for 26, 28 guys, anything's possible. I think that little stretch we went through just made us stronger and built our bond a little closer. ... We knew this was coming but it's only step one."
That sentiment was echoed all throughout the clubhouse.
"We can say we're the best team in the best division this year, and it wasn't easy," Boone said. "We took everyone's punches. It's not easy going through the American League East and survive and be the team. And I think we all understand that this is step one, and we want to win a championship, that's our goal."
The Yankees won for the eighth time in their past nine games, as Jameson Taillon pitched into the eighth inning en route to his 14th win of the season. Anthony Rizzo had two hits and an RBI, and Kyle Higashioka had three hits and scored two runs, supplying enough offense to clinch the division four days before the calendar turns to October.
Toronto, still seeking to secure the AL's top wild-card berth, fell to 17-9 in September. George Springer finished 2-for-4 in the loss, with two runs and his 24th home run of the season. It was Springer's 52nd career leadoff home run, one shy of tying Hall of Fame standout Craig Biggio (53) for third all time.
The win over Toronto secured the second seed in the AL, behind the Houston Astros, and a first-round bye for the Yankees.
"What a year it's been so far, we're definitely not done, but this is a great first step into the ultimate goal of going out there and winning a World Series," Judge said.
Asked whether he would give Judge a day off after capturing the divisional title, Boone said it would be something they would have to "sort out." Including Tuesday night's win, Judge has played in 48 consecutive games, his longest streak of the season after playing in 47 straight games from May 17 to July 6.
Judge, who remains one home run away from tying Roger Maris' AL all-time mark, and the Yankees will close out the series Wednesday night in Toronto with ace Gerrit Cole on the mound. New York will return home to open a three-game set with the Baltimore Orioles on Friday.
And after tying his second-longest homerless drought this season, with seven games without leaving the yard, and with eight games left in the regular season, is Judge concerned?
"Not at all. ... That'll come," he said.