Commentary

Yankees' rally had that October feel

It wasn't the Bombers' best game of the season, but it was their best inning

Updated: September 30, 2012, 7:46 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TORONTO -- Sometimes it is hard to believe that the same team that could be capable of stinking up a giant domed stadium on Saturday can run the home team out of the same building on Sunday.

That is the vexing dilemma of the New York Yankees. When they are bad, as they were in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the hopeless Toronto Blue Jays, it is easy to conclude that they are neither capable nor deserving of playing in the postseason.

Then they put together a victory like they did on Sunday, and an inning like they did after two-thirds of a miserable game had already been played, and you are tempted to believe that maybe there is a November parade in their future after all.

Robinson Cano
Abelimages/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano's bat thinks it's October already.

The Yankees didn't play their best game of the season, far from it, in beating the Blue Jays 9-6 to salvage a split of this four-game series and end their seven-game road trip ever-so-slightly in the black at 4-3. But they may have put together their best inning of the season in the seventh, just at a time when it looked as if they were headed to a crushing, and perhaps season-threatening, defeat.

"Deflating? It could have been," manager Joe Girardi said after his team had battled back from a 5-1 deficit to continue treading water in its battle with the Baltimore Orioles for the AL East title.

"I think it's a big win for us to come back in that situation," he said. "We get to go home now and play at our ballpark. We had an outstanding homestand the last time and that's what we need to do again. And see where we fall."

After Phil Hughes failed to get out of the fifth inning and left his team in a 5-1 hole, it seemed as if the Yankees were headed for a great big fall that not even three final games against the inept Boston Red Sox this week could make right.

But breathing a sigh of relief at the exit of hard-throwing Toronto starter Henderson Alvarez, and the entrance of a parade of increasingly hapless Blue Jays relievers, the Yankees started climbing out of that canyon one pitch at a time.

The seventh-inning rally started with pinch-hitter Eduardo Nunez singling to center, continued through Derek Jeter's ground-rule double -- an opposite-field flare that hopped into the stands -- and perhaps peaked when Alex Rodriguez, having fallen behind 0-2 to Steve Delabar, worked out an eight-pitch walk.

From there, Robinson Cano's two-RBI double that tied the score at 5-5 almost seemed an inevitability, especially since Cano has been ablaze the entire trip, collecting 15 hits in 28 at-bats for a .576 batting average. Even after Toronto shortstop Yunel Escobar made a highlight-film snag of a Nick Swisher liner that seemed destined to be another RBI single, turning it into a spectacular inning-ending double play, a game that was merely tied suddenly felt like a Yankees victory.

Considering what was at stake -- the Orioles were in the process of beating the Red Sox at home and in Texas the Angels were headed to a ninth-inning win over the Rangers, keeping their playoff hopes alive and stalling, at least until later Sunday night, the Yankees' chance to assure their own October berth -- it may have been the most important half-inning the Yankees have put together all season.

Especially since the first six innings were looking a lot like a continuation of the previous nine, when the Yankees failed, time and again, to get a timely hit and lost yet another one-run game.

The Yankees had had runners on base in five of Alvarez's six innings, including having runners at second and third with none out in the sixth, only to come away with just one run.

"I thought we had a lot of good at-bats against Alvarez," Girardi said. "We hit the ball hard, but just not in the right spots. I think if you have a younger team you worry a little bit more about it. But with an experienced group you just left everyone have their at-bats. I told them keep having good at-bats and they did."

The Yankees took the lead in the eighth, an inning highlighted by Russell Martin's sacrifice bunt that advanced two runners, both of whom eventually scored. They added two more runs in the ninth, highlighted by Cano's surprise push bunt up an abandoned third-base line, setting the stage for Curtis Granderson's two-run single.

Those extra runs came in handy when a rusty Rafael Soriano, having worked to just one batter in the past nine days, allowed the Blue Jays to load the bases with none out in the ninth but escaped with just one run.

A blown save and a loss right there truly would have been deflating. Instead, now the Yankees head home for three against Boston with one last chance to head into October, and whatever it brings, riding a head of steam.

At the same time, the Orioles will be traveling to St. Petersburg to play the Rays, who are trying to keep their own flickering wild-card hopes alive.

"I thought it was important that we continue to fight and came back, but all the games are the same now," Jeter said. "Every single game is big. If you ask me tomorrow, I'll say the same thing."

"It's a three-game series and anything can happen," Girardi said. "But it's nice to go home. Let's see what happens."

The possibilities are many, but the best way for the Yankees to ease their own path would be to sweep the Red Sox, because the way the Orioles have been playing -- they jumped out to a 3-0 first-inning lead on the way to a 6-3 win over Boston on Sunday -- it is only safe to assume they will sweep their series, too.

In that case, the two will finish in a tie for the division lead, necessitating a one-day trip to Camden Yards to settle the issue on Thursday. Andy Pettitte is on rotation to make that start, if necessary.

"Tonight was a season-defining game for us," Swisher said. "We could have gone down big like that and just packed it in, but that's not this team's M.O.; that's not how we approach it. We fight to the end."

On days like this, it's easy to believe that and easy to forget about the two games they lost here this weekend, games in which it looked as if the only thing the Yankees were headed for this October was trick-or-treating.

"I'm not even thinking about the wild card, man," Swisher said. "That's not my thought process. My thought process is the division, get ourselves another banner, get ourselves another ring. That win for us tonight really turned things around for us. This city, this team expects to win and that's what I expect us to go out and do."

Saturday night, those words would have sounded like the foolish boasting of an over-exuberant boy at best, whistling past the graveyard at worst.

A day later, for the first time in a long time, they actually sounded as if they might prove true.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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