David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Mariano Rivera has been in a few playoff games. Ninety-six, to be exact. So he's familiar with the sense of urgency, the do-or-die nature that comes with every pitch of the postseason.
In his mind, Sunday's game against the Rays wasn't quite at that level. Not in August. But you can bet Joe Girardi was thinking that way. So were a number of the other Yankees, a team whose margin of error is getting slimmer by the minute.
How do we know? The bullpen phone rang three times for Rivera during the course of the Yankees' 3-2 victory, which required 11 innings and finally was nailed down when a sprinting Curtis Granderson sidestepped a bullpen mound to make the clinching catch of Matt Joyce's fly ball in foul territory.
On one of those occasions, Rivera was warming up in the middle of the 10th, with Girardi prepared to break the glass and go to his 43-year-old closer in a last, desperate attempt to kill the Rays' rally and keep the Yankees breathing into the 11th.
Girardi never goes there with Rivera in a non-save situation, and certainly not if he's only trying to extend a regular-season game. But when Boone Logan replaced Joba Chamberlain with a runner on first and one out, Rivera was waiting.
"I had to be ready to go," said Rivera, who at that point realized Girardi was pushing his chips to the middle of the table. "I would have come in there, too."
That wasn't necessary. Logan got Jose Lobaton to bounce into a 5-4-3 double play, Girardi exhaled and Rivera welcomed the chance to save his bullets for the 11th. He needed only six pitches, but it was an eventful half-dozen.
Robinson Cano made a nifty backhanded grab to rob Ben Zobrist and Granderson reeled in the last two outs. He chased down Evan Longoria's long drive to the warning track and followed that up by roaming deep into foul territory for the Joyce catch.
With the Yankees staring at a potential sweep and the risk of falling further behind in the playoff race, those felt like huge outs.
"This group has been resilient," Girardi said. "I've said it all year long. People have wrote us off a few times, and they find a way to bounce back."
But Sunday wasn't as much about bouncing back as it was being bold enough to throw the first punch. And having the backbone to see the job through to its end.
Cano drove in the first two runs, tying the score at 1 with his fourth-inning homer and giving the Yankees a brief 2-1 lead with an RBI double in the sixth.
From there, the game turned into a chess match between Girardi and Joe Maddon as the two managers shuffled benches and bullpens.
For all of Maddon's percentage-driven infield shifts, and both working the odds for a pitching edge in the later innings, it came down to a gambler's vibe between Girardi and Alfonso Soriano, the 37-year-old picked up at the trade deadline for his bat, not his legs.
Soriano's one-out double in the 11th inning put the go-ahead run 180 feet away, but that wasn't close enough. Girardi gave Soriano the green light to grab another base, and even more surprising, Soriano took him up on the offer to set up the winning run. Without much hesitation.
"Sometimes my mind is 100 percent," Soriano said, "but my legs are not."
Both understood that the Yankees no longer can play it safe. They are only 31/2 games behind Oakland for the second wild-card spot, but they own the sixth-best record of the teams jockeying for three playoff berths, and the window is closing. Even with Labor Day another week away, the Yankees are in the uncomfortable spot of playing catch-up rather than protecting their usual lead at this time of year.
They may not be in desperation mode just yet, but Girardi has his finger on the button, and Sunday showed that he's going to have to start pushing it. The playoffs, as far as the Yankees are concerned, already have begun.
"You get in some of these tight games, you're going to have to do some things," Girardi said. "So we tried a few things, and it worked out."
Looks as though October is arriving early this year.