NEW YORK -- As soon as Austin Romine swung through a Chris Sale changeup to end the seventh inning, the Yankees' chances of winning Tuesday night's game against the White Sox dropped to about 1 in 10.
Even though the White Sox needed to win this game about as badly as Mariano Rivera needs a hairbrush -- and the Yankees needed it, as Alex Rodriguez likes to say, "like oxygen" -- the numbers simply said that it was highly unlikely the Yankees would be able to overcome a 4-1 deficit.
After all, 60 times this season they had trailed after seven innings. They lost 54 of those games. And on this night, they were facing Sale, a lefty with a nasty, whip-like delivery who had held them to just one measly earned run in 18 1/3 innings spread over two career starts -- both of which he had won.
But it had already been an improbable night -- the Yankees' only run was scored on a double steal in the second inning that ended with Vernon Wells, of all people, being credited with a steal of home -- so what followed in the eighth inning could hardly be considered much of a shock.
In fact, in hindsight it seems perfectly natural, predictable even, that Robinson Cano would chase Sale with a one-out double in the eighth, and that Alfonso Soriano, who had 11 home runs, would come through with a big hit, a two-RBI double, in the first week of September; or that Rodriguez would deliver a clutch single or that Joe Girardi, as reflexive a manager as you will ever find, would go against his spray charts and his binders to send Curtis Granderson up against a lefty.
Of course, Granderson -- whom Girardi sent up to hit for Vernon Wells against righty Nate Jones knowing full well Robin Ventura would counter with the lefty Donnie Veal -- would come through with an RBI single to tie the game at 4, and then it was Eduardo Nunez's turn, the same player who was ridiculed mercilessly by his teammates a week ago in Toronto for dropping to the turf as if he had been shot.
Nunez lined a 96 mph fastball down the left-field line to drive in two runs, and just like that, a most improbable task became a rousing 6-4 victory, and suddenly, even something as fanciful as the Yankees winning 19 more games to sneak into the playoffs doesn't seem all that far-fetched.
"It's a great win for us," Girardi said. "You think about what we're trying to do, we're trying to gain ground on teams, and every game is important."
As bad as Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Orioles was, that's how good this win was for the Yankees' morale. Coupled with an Orioles loss to the Cleveland Indians, the Yankees moved back into third place in the AL East by a half game, a position they had occupied for just one day since July 6, and pending the outcome of the faltering Tampa Bay Rays game against the Angels in Anaheim, were in position to move within a game and a half of the second wild-card spot.
To get there, they Yankees had to survive yet another subpar performance by Hiroki Kuroda, who for the first four months of the season was their de facto ace, and another crushing night at the plate against Sale, who brought an ERA of 0.49 against the Yankees into the game with him.
And for those first seven innings, they could do nothing with him, managing just three hits, scoring just that one fluky run and having only one other real scoring chance -- a leadoff double by Nunez in the fifth which they promptly wasted on a fly out by Chris Stewart, a looking strikeout by Brett Gardner and a groundout by Derek Jeter.
But it was Jeter -- who gave the Yankees a first-inning scare when a Sale changeup found the one area of unprotected muscle on the back of his left calf, causing him to hop around in pain for a bit -- who started the eighth-inning uprising with a one-out single to center. Sale got ahead of Cano, 1-2, but then left a fastball over the plate that Cano lined off the base of the left-field fence, giving the Yankees runners at second and third.
That was enough for Ventura, who pulled Sale at 114 pitches and replaced him with Jones, who was belted for the two-run single by Soriano and the single to A-Rod, both with two strikes.
At that point, Girardi made the decision of the game, pulling Wells, who had singled in three at-bats, in favor of Granderson even though he knew Grandy was likely to have to face a lefty.
"Well, Grandy's a guy that can hit some deep fly balls," Girardi said. "Grandy has hit lefties. He's hit home runs off of lefties. At the very least you're looking for a sac fly. I think they understand that, too, and it's a tough at-bat for a pitcher to face him in that situation."
It turned out to be too much for Veal, who fell behind 3-1 before leaving Granderson a pitch he could handle, a fastball he lined to center to tie the game. After Mark Reynolds struck out, Nunez -- who had to suffer the indignity of finding a wheelchair in front of his locker and the chalk outline of his body on the field in Toronto the day after his mysterious knee injury -- delivered possibly his biggest hit as a Yankee to win the game.
And instead of being showered with ridicule, Nunez was doused with the sports-drink bath accorded to the game's hero.
"It was a great comeback," he said. "We all fight together. Every game is important. It's like a playoff."
Although no one would admit to it, Nunez has suspected that it was a bunch of veteran Yankees who were behind the Toronto display that had him both laughing and cringing.
"A lot of things happen in front of Jeter and A-Rod and these guys," he had said. "They're laughing at me, all over me all the time. That's no fun."
But no one was laughing at him on this night. Asked if he thought Jeter would lay off him now, Nunez said, "For a couple of hours. Only a couple of hours. Maybe."
On a night in which the unlikely became reality, even that seemed like a real possibility.