The Yankees were three innings from something that would have seemed unfathomable in mid-July:
Being just one game ahead in the AL East at the close of business Saturday, with a very fair chance of being dead even come Sunday night.
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But an odd seventh inning kept that from happening Saturday, with some unlikely contributors helping the Yankees piece together a three-run rally that gave them a 4-3 win over the second-place Orioles in front of 46,122 at the Stadium.
"We needed this one,'' said Derek Jeter, who worked a bases-loaded walk after being down 0-and-2 in the count to tie the score in the seventh.
"It's nice to win,'' Joe Girardi said after his team moved three games ahead of the Orioles. "This is the team we're going to have to beat, obviously, if we want to get where we want to be. So it's a nice win and we want to carry it into tomorrow.''
The Orioles entered the day 24-6 in one-run games and had won their last 13 games that were decided by a run. The Yankees, who had seen the 10-game lead they held on July 18 cut to two games, were 16-19 in one-run games. But they turned that statistic around for a day, coming back from an early 3-0 deficit.
Robinson Cano hit an opposite-field homer on an 0-and-2 pitch from lefthander Wei-Yin Chen with two outs in the fourth, becoming the first Yankee to reach base. But going into the bottom of the seventh, the Orioles seemed in complete control behind Chen, who had allowed two hits and a walk.
With one out, Steve Pearce -- who was acquired from the Astros earlier in the week and took Curtis Granderson's place in the five-hole when Granderson had to leave the game in the second with a tight right hamstring -- singled to left for his first hit as a Yankee. One out later, Jayson Nix came back from an 0-and-2 count to draw a walk from Chen (12-8). Eduardo Nunez, who reported earlier in the day as one of the September call-ups, then lined a broken-bat single to left-center to make it 3-2.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter brought on righthander Pedro Strop to face Ichiro Suzuki, who walked to load the bases. Jeter then battled to a full count, and with the crowd as loud as it has been all year, walked on a breaking ball that was just inside to tie it at 3-3.
"We were able to lay off some tough pitches and draw some walks, and Nuney came up with that big hit,'' Jeter said.
Then the count went full on Nick Swisher, who lined a one-hop shot right at shortstop J.J. Hardy that hit the ground just in front of him. When the ball hit him in the stomach and he failed to pick it up in two tries, the Yankees had the lead.
"We know we're playing against a good team right now,'' Swisher said. "Obviously, we don't have all the pieces to our puzzle, but we're a no-excuse team. We have to go out there and get the job done. Whoever we throw out there, we expect to play well.''
"These guys will turn the page,'' Showalter said. "There's great competition out there and we look forward to doing it against tomorrow.''
Rookie righthander David Phelps struggled with his command, walking six in 42/3 innings. Of the first 10 Orioles to come to the plate, Phelps walked three, hit a batter on a 3-and-2 pitch, allowed a hit-and-run single by Hardy and an RBI single by Manny Machado, and threw away a pickoff attempt for an error. But he also got Nate McLouth and Nick Markakis to ground into double plays in that span, which allowed him to limit the damage to 2-0.
Phelps allowed a home run by Matt Wieters in the fourth, but Cody Eppley, Boone Logan (6-2), Robertson and Soriano combined to allow no runs and one hit in 41/3 innings.
"Six walks and a hit batter, it's unacceptable,'' Phelps said. "It's got to be better than that.''
Still, he allowed, "It could have been a lot worse.''
That goes for his team, too.