TORONTO -- Twelve outs from having their destiny taken out of their hands in terms of winning the AL East title, the Yankees staged an unlikely rally.
Trailing the Blue Jays by four runs going into the sixth Sunday, the Yankees scored eight times in the final four innings and were thrilled to escape Rogers Centre with a 9-6 victory that kept them tied with the Orioles for the AL East lead with three games remaining.
"I thought it was important that we continued to fight and came back," said Derek Jeter, who was 3-for-5, including a two-out RBI single in the seventh that put the Yankees ahead 7-5. "But all the games are the same now. You ask me tomorrow, I'll tell you the same thing. Every game we play is a big game."
And the next one is Monday night as the Red Sox, fresh off getting swept in Baltimore, start a three-game series in the Bronx.
Both the Yankees and Orioles clinched berths in the postseason when the Angels lost to the Rangers Sunday night, but a loss to Toronto would have dropped the Yankees out of first place for the first time since June 10 and meant they would need help to win the division title even if they swept Boston. Now, if both teams win out (Baltimore has three games against the Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla.), the Yankees and Orioles will play a one-game playoff Thursday in Baltimore to determine the division winner.
With the Orioles taking a 6-1 lead over Boston in the fifth en route to a 6-3 win, the Yankees were in peril of losing control of the race, trailing 5-1 after five innings and 5-2 after six. But they rallied after Jays manager John Farrell pulled Henderson Alvarez, who allowed two runs and threw 87 pitches in six innings.
"We really started to score when Alvarez left, that's the bottom line," Joe Girardi said.
Girardi countered by sending up Eduardo Nuñez, who singled. Next came righty Steve Delabar to face Jeter, who popped a ground-rule double down the rightfield line. Ichiro Suzuki's long sacrifice fly to center made it 5-3.
Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano then came through with big at-bats against Delabar and his nasty splitter. A-Rod, down 0-and-2 in the count, drew a walk and Cano -- who looked bad in falling behind 1-and-2 -- capped another seven-pitch at-bat with an RBI double to right.
Farrell then brought on lefty Aaron Loup to face Nick Swisher. Loup's wild pitch tied it at 5-5 and moved Cano to third with one out. But Swisher ran into some bad luck, smoking a liner to short, where Yunel Escobar made a diving catch to his right and easily doubled off Cano, who never stopped running.
Cano was 3-for-5 with two doubles, making him 15-for-24 in his last six games. "Nothing different, I'm just trying to put the ball in play like I always do," said Cano, who surprised everyone by beating the shift with his first bunt single since 2007. "Been having the same approach and trying to swing at strikes."
After lefthander Darren Oliver walked Curtis Granderson and allowed a single to Raul Ibañez to start the eighth, Nuñez delivered a sacrifice fly and Jeter made it 7-5 with an RBI single, his major league-leading 213th hit. Granderson's two-run single in the ninth gave him 100 RBIs.
Phil Hughes allowed five runs and eight hits in 42/3 innings, but Derek Lowe, Boone Logan (7-2) and David Robertson produced 31/3 scoreless, hitless innings before Rafael Soriano allowed a run in the ninth. "That was a must-win game, a situation like this," Swisher said. "These guys have played us tough all year. To get this last one, when we needed it most, was crucial."
For a division title, that is. To Jeter, a wild-card berth wouldn't be worth celebrating, especially with the added importance this year of staying out of the one-game wild-card playoff.
"Clinching it means we're in the playoffs, but you celebrate for winning the division. That's what you try to do," Jeter said. "Our goal going into the season isn't to clinch a wild card, it's to win the division, and we haven't done that."