For weeks now, the front-running New York Yankees have been telling each other, "Anything but the wild card." And thanks to the latest escape that pinch hitter Raul Ibanez provided them Tuesday night by smacking a seeing-eye single two innings after he'd belted another of his gotta-have-it homers -- this one a bottom-of-the-ninth, two-run shot against Boston that Ibanez sent screaming off toward the right-field seats, then followed up with the fastest sprint around the bases you'll ever see -- the Yankees staved off the worst division-race collapse in their storied history and stayed alive for the AL East title they desperately want to win instead.
Anything but the wild card.
If the Yanks can pull it off, they won't care that their dogfight with the Baltimore Orioles lasted till their 162nd game. Or that it might not have happened at all without a little magic from a 40-year-old platoon outfielder who, once again, reminded everyone at the Stadium that this is how bookmarks in baseball history are often made. He's now the Yanks' first 40-something player to have a walkoff hit since Enos Slaughter.
The fact that everything for the Yankees now still comes down to having to win their season finale Wednesday -- or watch the O's lose theirs -- is just a minor quibble when cast against everything else the Yankees accomplished with their stirring 4-3, 12th-inning win over the Boston Red Sox. Or what they could've lost.
The Yanks held onto their one-game division lead over the Orioles, which means they may not have to hear about the 10-game cushion they once had. They also avoided a gutting loss to a Triple-A-laden Boston lineup that could've haunted them all the way to spring training in February even though the Red Sox did get Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury back.
The Yanks also survived having to start rookie David Phelps, who pitched extremely well after a shaky first inning. Now they send Hiroki Kuroda to the mound Wednesday against Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka with a chance to avoid a multitude of other nightmare scenarios such as having to play three games in three days if they lose and the O's win, or falling into the win-or-go-home wild card play-in game that will be played in both leagues for the first time this year.
"It's crunch time for us now, and we all know that," Ibanez said during an on-field TV interview that he shivered through after having a celebratory bucket of ice dumped on him. "We've been battling. This team, the character and resiliency we have, it's extraordinary."
They've been candid that Baltimore isn't the only thing goading them to these heights.
The Yankees would never flat-out admit that they fear Justin Verlander's fastball, that they quake at having to pitch to sluggers Josh Hamilton or Miguel Cabrera, that they worry the upcoming playoffs are when they're finally going to miss closer Mariano Rivera no matter how good a job Rafael Soriano has done. But if you mentioned finishing as one of the AL's wild-card teams to them in the days leading up to Tuesday's win, it was as if they'd seen a ghost. Management, especially, acted like the mere thought forced them to swallow primal screams.
"I'm hoping not to be the wild card," Yanks general manager Brian Cashman told ESPNNewYork.com on Tuesday, echoing what team owner Hal Steinbrenner also acknowledged Monday.
"It's tense," Steinbrenner said. "There's no breathing room."
Everything seemed as if it were about to get a whole lot more tense for the Yankees for a large part of this 4-hour, 19-minute game.
The Red Sox were leading 3-1 heading into the Yanks' last at-bats because Soriano coughed up an insurance-run homer in the top of the ninth to James Loney. By then, all the grueling playoff scenarios the Yankees wanted to avoid had roared back to mind because they also knew Baltimore had refused to blink yet again. The Orioles eked out a 1-0 win against Tampa Bay that went final on the stadium scoreboard while the Yanks were still playing what would've been a second-guesser's smorgasbord had they lost.
Until Ibanez again made himself the hero, same as he did last weekend by hitting two homers in the Yanks' come-from-behind win over Oakland in 14 innings, the Yanks' season-long habit of stranding too many runners on base seemed likely to kill them again.
Some by-the-binder managing by Joe Girardi against Red Sox lefty Jon Lester that left white-hot second baseman Robinson Cano batting fifth for the Yanks and leading off three innings rather than batting cleanup instead of Mark Teixeira seemed likely to be hotly discussed had they lost, too. Cano is hitting better than .600 his past 35 at-bats. Teixeira was playing just his second game after spending 30 of the Yanks' previous 31 on the disabled list with a strained calf, and he pounded into three rally-killing ground outs, two of them double plays. All told, Teixeira left eight men on base.
No wonder Teixeira laughed later when asked what he thought when he saw Ibanez's homer clear the fence to tie the game and then his single go bounding through the shortstop hole to win it.
"I'm the happiest guy on the team right now," Teixeira said. "I told Raul 'thank you' a hundred times. He can roll out of bed and pinch hit. First day of spring training, he's hitting."
Ibanez's fellow players have always had the highest praise for him even before this streak he has been on. In addition to citing how he has been everyone's favorite teammate everywhere he has played and what a class guy he is -- "One of the best people in baseball," Teixeira said -- the biggest compliment other big leaguers always pay Ibanez is he's a "professional hitter."
What they mean is he's not only talented, he's also savvy and mentally strong. He's the kind of guy who isn't overwhelmed by a big situation, who knows how to work a count and then doesn't miss when he does get a pitch to hit. And it doesn't much matter if he has just sat for nine innings. Or nine days.
"You can't put enough emphasis on guys [like him] being in that position before. He knows how to calm everything down for himself," said Derek Lowe, who gave the Yanks some clutch play himself by throwing two scoreless innings against his former team, including a nice recovery after a bird (not a midge, not an Oriole) fluttered around the infield in the 12th while a groundskeeper first chased it with a bucket and then unsuccessfully tried stomping it with his foot. ("He was going for the kill shot, did he not?" Lowe asked reporters, his eyes a little wide. But no one answered.)
Ibanez was asked what his approach was on his game-winning single that brought ever-wacky Yanks catcher Francisco Cervelli galloping around from second to score on a half barrel roll/half slide, and Ibanez said, "I was just trying not to do too much. And it found a hole."
How about that home run in the ninth? "It's the same thing," Ibanez said. "Try not to do too much."
It was just enough. Now instead of a loss that would've given another left-for-dead Boston club a chance to send the Yanks spiraling to another collapse in the record books -- albeit, this time in the division race rather than an ALCS -- they have one game to play with everything still in front of them. If the Yankees win Wednesday, they will wrap up the AL East, and maybe even the best record in the American League, depending on what happens between Texas and Oakland in their last game.
Anything but the wild card.
"Tomorrow is a new day now," Ibanez said with a little smile, knowing he'd just made it so.