NEW YORK — In the space of mere minutes, it went from a candidate for the biggest New York Yankees win of the year to a virtual lock for potentially the worst loss in maybe a decade. The Yankees entered the ninth inning exactly where they wanted to be, with a 7-4 lead over the Toronto Blue Jays and their formidable closer, Dellin Betances, on the mound.
But 40 pitches later, the scored closed to 7-6, the Blue Jays had the bases loaded with only one out, Betances was headed to the showers and someone named Blake Parker was coming in.
And here lies the difference between a veteran player — one who has seen it all, including a World Series championship — and a newbie who has seen nothing but 21 big league games: As Betances was making his way, head down, to the Yankees dugout, rookie outfielder Aaron Judge moseyed over from right field to say something to Brett Gardner, the oldest Yankee in point of service and one of just three leftovers from the last Yankees team to win the World Series all the way back in 2009.
“Boy, this is exciting,” Judge said to Gardner, or words to that effect.
“It’d be a lot more exciting if it were 7-4 instead of 7-6,” Gardner replied.
Little did either of them know the most exciting moment of the game still lay before them. Judge, struggling mightily even to put his bat on the baseball lately, already had come through with a big hit. And Tyler Austin, celebrating his 25th birthday, had followed with a home run that gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the seventh.
That lead proved to be temporary when Kevin Pillar, the Toronto Blue Jays’ center fielder, gave his club back the lead with a two-run double a half-inning later, and then the Yankee seized it back on a two-run home run by Chase Headley, among the most maligned of Yankees back in April when a night like this in September hardly seemed possible.
And now, they were on the verge of giving it back again. The dangerous Pillar was at the plate, the even more dangerous Justin Smoak was waiting right behind him, and the biggest arm in the Yankees’ bullpen was already spent.
But Parker, a virtual unknown who had appeared in nine mostly low-leverage situations, caught Pillar looking at a curveball. Things were looking pretty good.
Then Parker hung a curveball, his first pitch, to Smoak and things looked soul-crushingly bad. The ball left the bat on a high arc, straining to reach the left-field seats, with Gardner straining to reach the baseball. For a heart-stopping instant, they hung in midair together, there was a collision of baseball, glove and back against wall, a flash of white as the ball snow-coned nearly out of the webbing, and finally, two arms thrust into the air in triumph. Yankees win 7-6.
Gardner had made if not the catch of his career, then at least the catch of the year, and somehow, the Yankees’ dream remained alive.
“You want excitement, kid?” Gardner’s body language seemed to say. “Take a look at this.”
He flipped the ball into the air, ran toward the dugout, but only made it part way before he was mobbed by his teammates, leaping, chest-bumping and generally acting the way teams do after something very, very big has happened.
“I felt like we won the World Series right there,” said Didi Gregorius, whose RBI triple in the eighth inning was a huge hit at the time, as it tied the game 4-4, but it turned out to be just another forgotten highlight in a game full of them.
But the biggest highlight of all came afterward, when a peek at the American League standings revealed that while the Yankees remained 3 1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles (who also won) for the second wild-card spot, they had quietly, almost stealthily crept to within 4 1/2 games of the division-leading Blue Jays, whom they have now beaten two games in a row with a chance to sweep them in Wednesday’s finale.
Suddenly, chasing that second wild-card berth seems almost like settling. For the first time all season, the Yankees are daring to think bigger, and maybe even dream.
“You don’t want to make too much of one game,” said Adam Warren, who pitched 2 1/3 strong innings in relief of Luis Cessa and whose seemingly premature removal seemed like a fatal blunder by manager Joe Girardi at the time. “But we keep proving ourselves, and we’re right in the middle of this thing.”
Warren, of all people, should have been the last player to want to call Yankee Stadium home again, having been traded away from the Chicago Cubs, the best team in baseball, to one that had seemingly raised the white flag at the trade deadline.
But somehow, the shedding of a couple of spare parts (Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller) and some tired blood (Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez) and replacing it with the youthful exuberance of Judge, Austin and Gary Sanchez has given this club a jolt of adrenaline.
“I feel like we knew the talent was here,” Warren said. “We just didn’t expect to see it this soon. It’s been fun to see this all come together, and now we’re right back in this thing.”
Gardner described the mood in the Yankees’ clubhouse on Aug. 1 as “disappointed and frustrated,” and acknowledged that at that point, the team was virtually going through the motions, too professional to stop coming to work but barely encouraged enough to think it would pay off.
“We thought, ‘We still have a job to do, and that is to go out and play hard,'” Gardner said. “And for the most part, good things have happened. We’ve had some young guys come up and really play well. We’ve got guys here who are excited by the moment, and not afraid of it.”
“Obviously, when you trade three players like we did, it’s going to make it a little bit tougher,” Headley said. “But I think sometimes new blood can just stir things up. It’s not anything against those guys — obviously they were our best players — but sometimes just a little mix-up can make a difference. I’m not saying we’re scaring anyone, but we keep inching closer, and now we’ve got a chance.”
Twenty-two of the Yankees’ final 25 games are against AL East teams, and 15 of those come against three of the teams that are ahead of them. So their destiny is solely in their own hands. As Girardi said, the Yankees are now in win-today mode every day, and even if he burned his bullpen to win Tuesday night — neither Warren nor Betances will be available Wednesday — that is the price his team will have to pay for having started out 9-17.
“It’s all in front of us,” he said.
And that is exciting, whether you’ve done it many times before or it’s your first time around.
“We’re still fighting,” Gregorius said. “And we’re not going to give up.”
Should make for something that hardly seemed possible for the Yankees back in April — a fun and interesting month of September.