CHICAGO — Joe Girardi played on three championship teams with the Yankees and managed one, so he knows of what he speaks.
And although he’s not ready to declare the 2017 Yankees anything of the sort, there are continuing signs of something special happening with his young club.
The latest came Friday afternoon in a 3-2 comeback victory over the Cubs on a savagely windy and cold afternoon at Wrigley Field.
With the Yankees down to their last strike in the top of the ninth inning, Brett Gardner stunned much of the crowd by launching a three-run homer off Hector Rondon. Chase Headley committed a two-base error to begin the bottom of the ninth, but Aroldis Chapman got the next three Cubs to record his seventh save.
“It’s a never-say-die [attitude],” Girardi said. “Just keep pounding away, keep putting up good at-bats. See what happens.”
The AL East-leading Yankees (18-9), who notched their ninth comeback victory, had a mostly frustrating afternoon before the ninth. Despite hitting the ball hard throughout, they entered the inning 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, stranding eight. The Yankees had two runners thrown out at the plate, both on balls hit by Headley.
“Honestly, we played better than them the whole game,” Headley said. “It’s not like we weren’t putting together good at-bats. And I’m not saying that to be snide, but we really played great and we didn’t get the ball to fall in. I thought we continued what we had done all game and were able to break through.”
Against Rondon, who filled in for unavailable closer Wade Davis and threw 40 pitches in the ninth, Headley singled to left with one out and went to second on a wild pitch, but Chris Carter struck out looking. Jacoby Ellsbury, out the previous two games with a bruised nerve in his left elbow, pinch hit for reliever Jonathan Holder and drew a walk.
Up stepped Gardner, who pulled a 2-and-2 slider over the ivy and into the seats above the rightfield wall. As the Yankees’ dugout erupted, a pumped-up Gardner screamed as he sprinted around the bases — “he was drooling,” Headley said — and then performed a leaping high-five with Ellsbury before punching the air and exchanging forearm bumps with Gary Sanchez and Starlin Castro.
After hitting no homers in his first 18 games, Gardner has five in his last six games.
“We never feel like we’re out of it with the lineup we have. You just never know who’s going to step up, and today it was Gardy,” said Aaron Judge, who has 13 hits in his last 25 at-bats after going 2-for-4 with a double to right-center that had an exit velocity of 119 mph, according to Statcast.
After Headley booted Russell’s grounder to start the ninth, Chapman — who received the World Series ring he won last year with the Cubs in a pregame ceremony — needed only 10 pitches to get out of it. He struck out Jason Heyward on four pitches, getting him looking at a sharp slider, and got Willson Contreras on a grounder to Headley. Then he struck out Javier Baez on three pitches — two sharp back-door sliders for called strikes and a 100-mph fastball that exploded in on Baez’s fists. He foul-tipped it into Sanchez’s mitt to end the game.
“Errors are part of the game,” Chapman said through his translator. “My job is to focus on the batter, make sure that run doesn’t score. Just focus on the job and get the job done.”
Which the Yankees have done consistently after a 1-4 start. They have won 17 of their last 22.
Each of the three homers hit in the game went to right, not a surprise given the howling 25-to-35-mph wind blowing in from left all afternoon. It was a 45-degree day, and though skies were sunny, it felt like 37.
Michael Pineda pitched well for the most part, making a first-inning mistake with a slider to Kris Bryant that resulted in an opposite-field homer and a sixth-inning mistake with a fastball that Kyle Schwarber hit over the rightfield fence.
Pineda allowed two runs and three hits in six innings, lowering his ERA to 3.12. The righthander walked one and struck out six — he has walked five and struck out 43 in 34 2⁄3 innings this season — but the Cubs led after his ninth pitch of the game, and it looked as if he’d be tagged with the loss.
Until the ninth.
“I always believe in my team,” Pineda said.
So does Girardi.
“I said all along in spring training I liked this group,” he said. “We’ve gotten off to a pretty good start. There’s a long ways to go and there’s a lot that plays into this, but . . . I really liked it [this team] when we left spring training.”