David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
It had been roughly 12 hours since the Orioles moved in as co-tenants atop the AL East when Joe Girardi was asked before yesterday's series finale at Rogers Centre if he felt nervous.
"No," the manager replied.
How about in the clubhouse? Do you sense any nervousness in there?
"No," Girardi said. "Do you?"
Fair question. But to those of us roaming around the lockers and not wearing road grays, those feelings can be hard to detect. Plus, the best time to gauge the mind-set of a team's players is not while they're eating breakfast and watching the morning rounds of the Ryder Cup.
No, that moment arrived Sunday in the fifth inning, when somebody must have reminded the Blue Jays the season isn't quite over yet. They took a 5-1 lead, thanks mostly to a two-run homer by Brett Lawrie off Phil Hughes that might have landed in Nova Scotia.
With the Orioles well on their way to a sweep of the hapless Red Sox, and with all of Camden Yards rejoicing at the sight of Lawrie's roof-scraper on its own video board -- thanks for the scene-setter, Twitter -- the Yankees were in trouble.
Real Trouble, spelled with a capital T and underlined in red. This was not the inconvenience of falling out of first place in June, with another four months to make up ground, leap over the Orioles, then win the division by double-digits.
What the Yankees were faced with was something along the lines of: Wait a minute, you mean we're going to be the wild card? First, you no longer control your own destiny. Next, you're huddled around a TV set, yelling at Jim Johnson to blow the save, praying for help from the Rays this week.
Not a pretty picture for a Yankees team that led the AL East by 10 games on July 18. Or for a manager whose job security would start becoming a more popular topic than A-Rod's incredible shrinking slugging percentage.
But staring into that abyss, the Yankees took a step back from the brink and went to work against Toronto's bullpen. They piled up eight runs in the next four innings -- without a home run, believe it or not -- to rally for a 9-6 victory that kept them neck-and-neck with the Orioles.
"This was a season-defining game for us," said Nick Swisher, whose acrobatic dodge of a knee-seeking slider made possible a wild pitch that tied the score at 5 in the seventh. "I've always had that feeling about this team. We fight to the end. We play all 27 outs, if not more."
Rafael Soriano tested Swisher's theory by loading the bases with none out in the ninth, but he got the double-play grounder he desperately needed.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that the Yankees won't have Mariano Rivera for this playoff run. But they've made it to 92 wins without Mo. And after watching his players hold on to at least a share of first place for the 112th consecutive day, Girardi insists he has no reason to doubt their determination to finish this exhausting push for another division title. "I'm confident in this group," he said, "because I've seen them do it."
Now the Yankees maybe have to do it three more times, perhaps a fourth in a tiebreaking Game 163, which would be at Camden Yards. Then, of course, it would mean 11 more wins in the postseason.
But no one in this clubhouse will even entertain those thoughts just yet. The Red Sox, wrapping up their first 90-loss season since 1966, will start the best pitcher they have, Clay Buchholz, in Monday night's game, followed by Jon Lester and what should be a layup in Daisuke Matsuzaka for the final day.
The Yankees locked up a postseason berth (as did the Orioles) when the Angels lost Sunday night. In the aftermath of Sunday's win, however, the Yankees had little interest in the wild card. To them, the concept reeks of failure, and they reinforced that notion Sunday by doing what had to be done.
"That's not how we get down in the Bronx," Swisher said of the wild card. "This team wants to win the division -- that's it."
Now they'll be home in the Bronx to do it.