The champagne was flowing last night as the Yankees finally made the inevitable a reality by clinching at least a wild card spot with a 6-1 victory over the Blue Jays.
Although the events of last week made October baseball stop feeling like a fait accompli, it was still a little disconcerting to see the Yankees celebrate a post season berth with first place in the division still up for grabs. The Yankees weren’t alone in their premature partying, however, as the Rays also popped the corks after clinching with a victory over the Orioles in front of just under 18,000 fans. Two teams, two celebrations, but neither for first place…welcome to the odd realities of the wild card era.
In order to clinch entry into the post season, Girardi turned to his ace lefty C.C. Sabathia, a controversial move because it seemed to contradict the strategy of prepping for the playoffs. Instead of setting up the big lefty to start the post season on regular rest, the increasingly beleaguered manager decided to go for the kill with his ace. The ultimate validation of that decision won’t come until after game 1 of the ALDS, but until that time, Sabathia’s 8 1/3 innings were an ample reward.
While Sabathia was cruising through the free swinging Jays’ lineup, the Yankees were doing something they had struggled to accomplish all month: build runs. Over the last few weeks, the team had become overly dependent on the homerun and turned an inability to score runners from third with less than two outs into an epidemic. Last night, however, the team seemed fine tuned in the art of small ball. The Yankees scored single runs in the first, third, fifth and ninth as well as two runs in the eighth, but most noteworthy was all six tallies occurred without the help of an RBI base hit. Instead, three sacrifice flies, two RBI groundouts and a bases loaded walk were responsible for all six runs scored, the team’s most prolific display of manufacturing runs since seven men crossed the plate without the benefit of hit back on May 3, 1986 against Texas.
Entering the ninth inning, Sabathia had less than 100 pitches under his belt, which, along with the prospect of long rest between his next outing, prompted Girardi to allow his ace to go for the complete game. Having Sabathia on the mound for the clincher would have been appropriate, but after two of the first three batters reached, Girardi opted for the next best thing. Although not a save situation, Mariano Rivera was called on to get the final two outs and send the Yankees into the playoffs to defend their championship title. As soon as Alex Rodriguez’ throw on a Lyle Overbay groundout settled into Mark Teixeira’s glove, Girardi and his coaches shared an embrace, while the players more casually exchanged handshakes on the field. Soon thereafter, however, a raucous celebration would take place.
It remains to be seen how the final four games of the season will play out. During the celebration, just about every player insisted that finishing first in the AL East was still a goal, but Girardi immediately announced that Javier Vazquez would take over Andy Pettitte’s Wednesday start and also vowed to rest several of his regulars. Considering that the Yankees still trail by a game in the loss column and the Rays hold the tie breaker, it’s all but certain that the playoffs will open on the road in Minnesota. There will be plenty of time to debate the extent to which the organization’s strategy was successful or not, but for now, the time has come to look forward to the difficult decisions ahead.