It was exactly a month ago, on September 4, when the Yankees saw their division lead vanish. It seemed that injuries had finally caught up to them, and so had the Orioles, and the next day they held a closed-door team meeting. The Yankees alternated wins and losses for the next week, then won 16 of the last 21 to pull ahead in the division and clinch home field.
“I think this team has been pushed to the max,” Alex Rodriguez said. “This is the hardest we’ve been pushed since I’ve been here. I told the New York media in Tampa that I thought it was going to be a blessing in disguise, and I think it was. I think we were forced to do things the right way, and we did.”
In an uncomfortably tight American League, there was no room to take anything for granted. Even after the Orioles lost to the Rays — handing the Yankees the division before this game was finished — the Yankees still needed to win to lock up the league’s best record.
“You have the wild card to fall back on, but we didn’t really look at it that way,” Derek Jeter said. “We wanted to win the division from the get-go. … I don’t try to compare the years, but most definitely this was difficult. You come into the last game of the season and nobody knows what’s going on. We’ve been taking it one day at a time for quite some time, but it feels good to win.”
And what an odd way to end it. The tightest race imaginable ended with an absolute blowout, during which play stopped for a few seconds because the scoreboard showed that the division had already been decided. Rodriguez had to step out of the box and Joe Girardi allowed himself a small and few pats on the back.
“You can relax for a second,” Girardi said. “We haven’t been able to do that in a long time.”
Now the Yankees have three days to relax a little bit. They’ll take the day off on Thursday, come to Yankee Stadium for a workout on Friday, and travel to Baltimore or Dallas on Saturday. The division series starts on Sunday. As Jeter said, that’s when it starts all over.
“Last year, we kind of walked into the playoffs,” Swisher said. “This year, we’ve had to bust our tails to get there. We just have to keep this momentum going, feel good about it. It feels good to party a little bit. No doubt about that.”
• Not sure I’ve ever seen a hitter as hot as Robinson Cano is right now. The guy went 4-for-4 tonight to continue his career-best streak of nine straight multi-hit games. He matched a career-high with six RBI, had his 10th multi-homer game and reached 33 home runs in a season for the first time. He has 24 hits in his past 39 at-bats. “That’s unbelievable,” Russell Martin said. “He’s showing what type of talent he is. Right now it’s hard to argue that he isn’t the best hitter in the league.”
• Curtis Granderson also homered twice tonight, giving him a career-high 43 for the season. He finishes the season one behind triple-crown winner Miguel Cabrera for the Major League lead in homers. He could have gone for it tonight, but Girardi pinch hit for him in the seventh.
• On the bench, Sabathia told Granderson that he was only one away from Cabrera. “It was a big lead so I kind of knew he was coming out,” Sabathia said. “That’s why I started jabbing him a little bit. He had a no idea. It was kind of funny to me that he was one behind him, a former teammates, they’re pretty close. It would have been pretty dramatic.”
• Jeter finished the season reaching base in his final 34 games. He also finished with 216 hits, the most in the Majors.
• The Yankees finished with 245 home runs, setting a new single-season franchise record. That ties the 1996 Mariners for the seventh-most all time. The Yankees became the first team to homer in 131 games in a single season.
• Good start from Hiroki Kuroda, who had been a cause for concern with his rocky month of September. It looked like his workload was catching up to him, but he was pretty sharp tonight. “Back to where he was at his peak during the season,” Martin said.
• Kuroda allowed two runs through seven innings and finished with a 2.72 ERA in 19 starts at Yankee Stadium this season. That’s the second-best single-season home ERA of any Yankees starting pitcher (at least 10 starts) since the current stadium opened. The best? Sabathia’s 2.69 home ERA this year.
• Sabathia on Kuroda: “He came here, got comfortable, made the adjustments and pitched great for us. He’s really been our best pitcher all year, and I can’t say enough about what he meant to our team.”
• He wasn’t necessary — obviously — but Rafael Soriano told Girardi that he could pitch tonight. “I know I throw too many pitches last night,” Soriano said. “But I say I’m ready to go tonight if you guys need me. I want to win.”
• Great nugget from Dave Waldstein: The Yankees were told to bring a packed suitcase just in case the team lost and had to go to Baltimore for a tiebreaker. Soriano refused to bring one.
• Speaking of Rodriguez, he was in the box when the scoreboard showed that the Orioles game was over and the Yankees had clinched the division. The stadium erupted and Rodriguez had no idea what was going on. “What was funny was seeing Al’s reaction in the box,” Martin said. “He had the reaction like he felt like somebody was running on the field. It definitely felt good. I felt like we had the mindset that we had to win this game today, and obviously the Orioles didn’t win, but our attitude through out September was just a battle. Everybody showed grit and heart and it really showed the DNA of this team.”
• Rodriguez on the reaction to the Orioles score on the board: “I knew it wasn’t for me because those cheers were way to loud.”
• The Yankees went 13-5 against the Red Sox this season, matching their most wins against Boston since 2001 when they were also 13-5. … The Yankees won the home season series against Boston for the first time since 2009. … The Yankees hit 43 homers off Boston pitchers this year, the most in a single season in the history of the rivalry and the second-most the Yankees have ever hit off any team in a single season (their record is 48 homers off the Kansas City Athletics in 1956, which is also the Major League record for one team against another).
• Didn’t see Hal Steinbrenner in the clubhouse, but team president Randy Levine was there. “It’s real gratifying,” Levine said. “This team showed an awful lot of heart under enormous of pressure the last month and a half. They came to play every day, came to play with an edge, and I think they’re really ready for the playoffs. They’re ready to go. We got pushed to the wall so far, but they hung tight. You know the way it is here; this is a great first step. Now we start to shoot for the real goal.”
• Final word’s been going to Swisher a lot lately, might as well do it again tonight: “Any time you’ve got a bottle of Champagne in your hands, it always feels good. This has been a tough year, man. We’ve had to battle. I just think it shows you the toughness of this team for the things we’ve had to overcome — a lot of injuries and a lot of key guys have stepped up in big spots.”
Associated Press photos