As the Yankees slowly added on to their lead Tuesday night, eyes in their dugout couldn’t help but glance at the scoreboard in right-center, hoping for good news from Baltimore.
There, the out-of-it Orioles were locked in a scoreless tie with the Red Sox, who brought a three-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East into the night.
The good news never arrived.
And so even as the Yankees made it 13 victories in their last 17 games with a 5-2 win over the Twins at the Stadium, the reality of the math is settling in.
They’re three behind with now 11 games to go, a date with a yet-to-be determined team Oct. 3 in the AL wild-card game becoming more likely by the day.
“Kind of have our backs against the wall a little bit,” said Brett Gardner, who went 3-for-5 with two RBI Tuesday. “But we’re playing really good baseball and we just need to continue to do that and keep the pressure on them.”
Still, even as the Bombers have won six straight series, they haven’t gained much ground. The Yankees, now a season-best 17 games over .500 (84-67), were 5 1⁄2 games back Sept. 1, but have picked up only 2 1⁄2 games during this hot stretch.
“Yes and no,” Girardi said of there being some frustration. “But I’m happy about the way we’re playing. That’s been my focus. We need to continue to play that way and let’s see what happens.”
The stretch has been made possible by the usual elements that contribute to winning streaks — solid starting pitching, production throughout the lineup and stellar relief pitching.
Tuesday night, CC Sabathia (12-5) avoided a potential train wreck of a first inning, allowing one run after loading the bases with none out. He allowed two runs and six hits in six innings. The 37-year-old retired 10 straight after Max Kepler homered in the third to make it a 2-1 lead for the Twins (78-73), who currently occupy the second wild-card spot.
Sabathia, whom Girardi trusted in the sixth to work his way out of a one-out, first-and-third jam, struck out five and walked one. He upped his career strikeout total to 2,836, passing Mickey Lolich (2,832) into third all-time among lefthanders, trailing Randy Johnson (4,875) and Steve Carlton (4,136).
“The two guys in front of me I’m never going to catch,” Sabathia said, “but it’s cool to have your name up there with those guys.”
Aroldis Chapman, who came in with a 0.93 ERA in his previous nine games, earned his 20th save with a scoreless ninth in which he allowed a double and struck out one.
Besides Gardner on offense, there was Starlin Castro (3-for-4 with am RBI) and Aaron Judge (2-for-4 with an RBI).
Twins righthander Jose Berrios came in 12-7 with a 3.84 ERA, with one of those victories coming July 19 in Minneapolis against the Yankees when he allowed one run and six hits in 6 2⁄3 innings. Tuesday night, the Yankees drove his pitch count up early and knocked him out after 3 1⁄3 innings. Berrios (12-8) allowed three runs, five hits and four walks, throwing 90 pitches (52 strikes).
The Yankees took the lead for good in the fourth. Jacoby Ellsbury, slashing .417/.533/.563 this month coming into the game, led off by slicing a double down the leftfield line. Todd Frazier struck out and Greg Bird drew his second walk in as many plate appearances. Gardner’s RBI single tied it at 2 and ended Berrios’ night. Righthander Alan Busenitz came on to face Judge and threw a wild pitch to move up both runners. Judge’s sacrifice fly brought in Bird to make it 3-2.
That was enough for Sabathia, 3-0 with a 3.12 ERA in his last six starts, and the bullpen.
“For us, it’s just about winning every game,” Sabathia said. “We can look up at the scoreboard after we win our games. They’ve [the Red Sox] been playing good, too. Just up to us to keep going.”