NEW YORK — If this was Mark Teixeira‘s last home run, he certainly made it count. And if it was his last curtain call, he certainly earned it.
But both Teixeira and the New York Yankees hope it is not the last of either, because there are still 22 games to be played and still some ground to be made up — and the kids can’t do it alone. Sometimes they need help from a 36-year-old with one bum knee and a chronically stiff neck, who in the space of five weeks has become the oldest player on a revamped Yankees roster.
“These young guys, man,” said Dellin Betances, who at 28 is decidedly among the middle-aged on this team. “The energy is definitely feeding off of everybody here.”
That includes old guys such as Teixeira.
The Yankees won another big game Friday night, 7-5 over the Tampa Bay Rays, in a slow, sputtering affair delayed three times by rain that finished in a soul-crushing 5 hours, 4 minutes.
The final hit the Yankees got came more than three hours before the game ended, and it was the one hit they could not have done without: Teixeira’s grand slam in the fourth inning, just moments after the game resumed following the first rain delay of the night, a ministorm that lasted 21 minutes.
Teixeira belted a 1-1 fastball from Kevin Jepsen just far enough — the ball, in fact, hit the top of the right-center field fence in front of the Yankees’ bullpen — to put the game out of reach for a Rays team that is playing just for the fun of it.
The Yankees, and Teixeira, are playing for a lot more than that. New York, trade-deadline seller and presumptive white flag waver on Aug. 1, suddenly finds itself knocking on the door of October, a mere one game behind the Baltimore Orioles for the second American League wild-card spot, two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the much-preferred first such spot and a certainly attainable four games back from the top spot in the AL East.
And for Teixeira, there are just 22 games between him and the end of his baseball career, unless he and the Yankees can manage to stretch it out a bit further.
“I’m emptying the tank,” he said. “Whatever I have left, it’s going to be thrown out onto the field. If we are still in this toward the end of the season, I want to be a big part of this team. Whether it’s every third night, or whenever it is, when I’m in there, I want to make a contribution.”
There was a time when there was no question when Mark Teixeira would be in the lineup: For nine consecutive seasons, he played in at least 132 games and twice appeared in the full 162. But due to injuries and aging, he has not played anywhere near a full season for five years, and since the call-up of Tyler Austin in mid-August, Teixeira has been reduced to a twice-a-week player, at best.
Teixeira, who has been plagued by neck and knee injuries all season, has started just 12 of the 25 games since Aug. 13; before Friday night’s game, his previous start was on Wednesday, and before that, Sept. 3. His pregame preparation these days consists of two hours of acupuncture, ultrasound, laser and heat treatments just to get him into the batting cage. Before Joe Girardi will pencil him into the lineup card, the Yankees manager looks at a variety of factors — who’s pitching for the other team, how Teixeira’s knee and neck are feeling, how he thinks Austin will fare against the opposing starter — and then discusses it with team trainer Steve Donohue and Teixeira before making the final call.
Teixeira and Girardi went through their dance Thursday night, and it was decided Teixeira would start at first base Friday night against Rays left-hander Blake Snell. It turned out to be just the latest in a series of fortuitous decisions Girardi has made during his team’s improbable resurgence.
He even made a couple of more Friday night. Girardi pulled starter Michael Pineda with two out in the fifth inning, much to Pineda’s public displeasure, with the Yankees ahead 7-2 — and got 4⅓ innings of adequate relief out of his makeshift bullpen, including a save from Betances that stretched out for more than an hour when the closer was forced to sit through one final, 51-minute rain delay.
But Girardi’s decision to play Teixeira turned out to be the wisest of all. Batting right-handed, Teixeira had doubled off Snell in the third inning and scored the Yankees’ third run on a wild pitch. An inning later, he came to bat left-handed, with the bases loaded, against Jepsen, a pitcher he had hit a three-run home run off of in July 2015.
“I was trying to hit a home run tonight, I really was,” Teixeira said. “I don’t do it very often, because you have to almost know how to hit home runs. That sounds silly, but I know what pitches I can do damage on and I know which pitchers I can do damage on. I knew if he threw me a strike out over the plate, I could have that kind of a swing.”
After getting a strike looking with a fastball then missing with a changeup, Jepsen obliged with another fastball over the outer edge of the plate. Teixeira went out and got it, pulling it just to the right of the 385 sign on the Yankees’ bullpen. The crowd of 30,194 erupted, and then demanded a curtain call. And Teixeira, who has hit 406 home runs and 11 grand slams, was not too blasé to respond.
“It could be my last one,” he said. “You never know.”
Nor how many more times he will drive in four runs with one swing. “I didn’t know how many more grand slams I had left in me,” said Teixeira, who announced earlier this year that he would retire at the end of the season. “So it sure was nice to get one tonight.”
Or even his last home run? “I hope not,” he said. “I hope there’s a lot more.”
And a lot more baseball.
As incredible as it might seem, just five weeks after virtually giving up, the Yankees are in the midst of a real honest-to-goodness playoff race.
“I don’t think any of us imagined anything,” Teixeira said when asked what the feeling was when the Yankees unloaded two closers and their best hitter at the trade deadline. “We just went out and tried to win games. And look where we are now. We’re closer than we’ve been all year. We can taste it a little bit. We’re hungry right now.”