Anthony Rieber Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998 and in his current position since 2004.

Two things were on everyone's mind Thursday night as the Yankees faced the Red Sox at rainy Yankee Stadium: the weather and the whether.

As in whether the Yankees finally would clinch a wild-card playoff spot.

There were no complicated scenarios. No scoreboard-watching. If the Yankees won, they clinched. If they lost, there would be no clinching until Friday night at the earliest.

Into that situation, and onto the mound in the rain, stepped CC Sabathia. One of the Yankees' few remaining links to the 2009 World Series championship team. Diminished by age and injury.

But Sabathia still has an ace's mentality, if not the stuff. Fastballs at 89 mph and a five-inning stint had to be good enough. Both were, and the Yankees are in the playoffs for the first time since 2012 after a 4-1 victory over the Red Sox.

"It feels like an eternity,'' Sabathia said, a statement Yankees fans can fully appreciate.

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Sabathia gave up one run, and Carlos Beltran and rookies Greg Bird and Rob Refsnyder homered. The Yankees will face a team to be determined in the AL wild-card game on Tuesday, most likely in the Bronx.

Pitching with a knee brace, Sabathia has a 2.17 ERA in five starts since returning from the disabled list Sept. 9. When he went out, it wasn't clear if he would ever pitch again.

"I was scared,'' he said. "I was nervous, for sure. But I felt like I had a good chance of hopefully getting back out there. To be able to pitch well is a bonus.''

Sabathia's signature moment came in the fifth with the Yankees leading 2-1. The Red Sox had scored in the inning on Mookie Betts' single. Sabathia faced lefty-swinging rookie Travis Shaw with two outs and the bases loaded.

Shaw hit a fly ball to medium center and Sabathia pumped his fist as he walked off. Four innings later, he had his sixth win of the season.

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"I'm sure it means a lot because at times it was tough for him,'' Joe Girardi said. "It was extremely painful during the course of the season. For him to get the win on the clincher has to be extremely gratifying.''

Girardi went to the bullpen for Adam Warren for three shutout innings, and Dellin Betances locked it down in the ninth. Then the celebration began.

The Yankees don't look like world-beaters, but it's an accomplishment worth celebrating to have made the playoffs in the first place -- even if they didn't finish in first place.

That last declaration was not sarcasm. Sure, you can look at the Yankees' $220-million payroll and sneer at a wild-card berth. Don't look at the payroll. Look at the talent.

Which Yankees are All-Stars in their prime of their careers? Three, maybe four: Betances, Andrew Miller, Brian McCann, Brett Gardner.

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The rest are either too old (Sabathia, Beltran, Alex Rodriguez), too young (Bird, Refsnyder, Luis Severino) or too brittle (Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Jacoby Ellsbury).

That doesn't mean it can't come together in a magical postseason run. But the Yankees won't go into the playoffs as anybody's first choice to win it all.

So while the somewhat subdued champagne celebration (especially as compared to the Mets' frat house party Saturday in Cincinnati) may have seemed a bit much, it really wasn't.

"There's so much happiness in there,'' Girardi said. "Those guys are jumping around like little kids, and that's what you want to see. You want them to enjoy this.''

Also, with a one-game playoff looming, there's a 50-50 chance it's the only bubbly the Yankees will spray on each other this year.

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"To be able to pop champagne and celebrate, guys can exhale,'' Sabathia said. "For a second.''

The Yankees used to win division crowns and World Series trophies. Sabathia used to throw 95 mph.

Sometimes you have to take what you can get and run with it as far as you can. Even on a bad knee or as a $220-million wild-card team.