BOSTON — The running joke within the Yankees’ clubhouse was that when Isiah Kiner-Falefa finally hit his first home run, he shouldn’t expect any celebration, a sure bet to receive the “silent treatment” from his teammates. He retorted that he’d deliver a walk-off, thus forcing them to acknowledge it.
But then a cutter hung over the heart of home plate, and amidst this season that he described as “an up and down roller coaster,” Kiner-Falefa could wait no longer. The Yankees shortstop cracked a game-tying homer in the fifth, then legged out a go-ahead bunt single in the ninth in a 3-2 victory over the Red Sox on Saturday evening at Fenway Park.
“It feels good to come through with the big homer and small ball, showing off both sides of my game,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I’m happy to come out with a win. We’ve been playing a lot of close games, so it feels good to finally pull one off.”
Kiner-Falefa is the only Major Leaguer in the last 30 years to have a game-tying homer and a go-ahead RBI bunt in the same game, according to STATS. Also contributing a nifty defensive play in the ninth inning, Kiner-Falefa’s exploits helped power just the Yanks’ second win in their last 10 games.
“Nothing’s easy for us right now, and we’re going through it, but that’s one of those gut-check wins,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.
A night to smile was sorely needed for Kiner-Falefa, who has been open about not performing to his expectations since being acquired from the Twins in a five-player deal this past March.
“I’m glad I was finally able to do what I do,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I can hit the ball around, bunt the ball, do the dirty work.”
Not having homered since Oct. 1, 2021, for the Rangers, Kiner-Falefa connected in the fifth inning, launching a 372-foot blast over the Green Monster against Boston starter Kutter Crawford. As promised, Kiner-Falefa returned to the dugout and breathed a sigh of relief, a few delicious moments of solitude passing before Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo and others ditched their cold shoulders and enveloped him in celebration.
Before the home run, Kiner-Falefa had 379 plate appearances this season without a homer, third-most in the Majors behind the Nationals’ César Hernández and the Astros’ Myles Straw. Kiner-Falefa’s blast off Crawford was just his third “barrel” of the year, a Statcast metric tracking the sport’s best-hit balls.
The drive supported a solid outing by right-hander Frankie Montas, who held Boston to two runs and five hits over five innings in his second start since being acquired from the Athletics earlier this month. Lucas Luetge, Lou Trivino, Aroldis Chapman and Scott Effross combined for four scoreless innings of relief.
While Kiner-Falefa was of course pleased by the homer — a Yankees security official brokered the ball’s return, with Kiner-Falefa revealing that the lucky fan requested a Judge autograph in exchange — the late innings showed a more representative snapshot of the “ gritty, tough, winning player” that Boone views Kiner-Falefa as.
“Sometimes playing for this team and that [shortstop] position, it can be heavy,” Boone said. “He wears that, and he cares about it. It matters to him.”
In the ninth, Andrew Benintendi roped a double off the center-field wall, then advanced to third on Jose Trevino’s infield single. Kiner-Falefa then received the sign from third-base coach Luis Rojas for a safety squeeze, dropping a bunt that pitcher John Schreiber fielded but could not make a play on.
How mixed was the rivalry crowd of 36,672? Kiner-Falefa heard the roar while racing to first base and initially believed Boston had recorded an out.
“It was a great call,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Boonie is a great manager, and he put me in a position to succeed right there against a tough pitcher on the mound. [Schreiber ] has been really good on righties, so it’s a tough matchup. I was going to try and spray something, but once I saw that, it was just, ‘Get the job done.’”
With Effross filling in for struggling closer Clay Holmes in the ninth, Kiner-Falefa was on the receiving end of a pivotal play that preserved New York’s lead.
Rafael Devers nubbed a one-out grounder in front of the mound that catcher Trevino pounced on, firing to second base. Effross remarked that “it was probably the only chance we had,” and Kiner-Falefa scooped the short-hopped throw, saving it from bouncing into center field.
Perhaps we’ll remember this as “The IKF Game.” He hopes there’s more like it to come.
“This is where I want to be,” Kiner-Falefa said. “This is my dream team, this is everything I’ve ever wanted in my life. To get the opportunity to come through tonight, it feels good, but we have a long way to go. I’m just hoping that I can keep this momentum going.”