Jacoby Ellsbury did not start Sunday in Baltimore in what Joe Girardi called “probably the biggest game of the year.” Just as Ellsbury did not start in last year’s wild-card game, which definitely was the Yankees’ biggest game of 2015.
Both times were against lefthanders, but the Yankees did not sign Ellsbury for $153 million to be a platoon player. On Monday, he was back in the lineup and went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer and three RBIs as the Yankees opened a 10-game homestand with a 5-3 victory over the Blue Jays before 42,141 at Yankee Stadium.
Ellsbury went deep against R.A. Dickey (9-14) in the first inning and added an RBI single in the third.
“It felt good being in there today,” he said. “No question about that. It’s nice helping the team win. Obviously, big win for us, and hopefully we keep rolling tomorrow.”
About not starting Sunday, Ellsbury said: “For the most part, I do play every day. You always want to be in the lineup, but at the same time, I know the game’s about statistics now.”
Said Girardi: “He had a big afternoon for us.”
Masahiro Tanaka (12-4) was charged with two runs in 6 1⁄3 innings as the Yankees remained 3½ games behind the Orioles and Tigers in the race for the second wild card. They also moved to within 5½ games of AL East-leading Toronto.
Tyler Austin had a two-run double off the left-centerfield wall in the fourth to make it 5-1, and the Yankees held on for their eighth win in their last 12 games.
Rookie Aaron Judge continued to struggle, going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. Judge (.169) has fanned in 19 of his last 26 at-bats. He did make a pair of key defensive plays, saving a run with a diving catch in the second and using his entire 6-7 1⁄2 frame to take away Dioner Navarro’s potential two-run home run at the rightfield wall in the seventh.
With the tying runs on base in the seventh after Toronto closed to within 5-3 on Edwin Encarnacion’s two-run single off Ben Heller, lefthander Tommy Layne got pinch hitter Russell Martin to pop out to a sprinting Starlin Castro in short rightfield to end the inning. Tyler Clippard, pitching for the third straight day, threw a 1-2-3 eighth and Dellin Betances struck out two in a perfect ninth for his ninth save.
The Blue Jays hit the stuffing out of the ball in the first inning but got only one run out of it, setting a tone for Tanaka’s outing. “I felt like I was all over the place,” Tanaka said through a translator. “But the offense got some quick runs right after I gave up a run and I thought there were really good [defensive] plays as well.”
Tanaka, who allowed seven hits, walked three, struck out four and exited with the score 5-1, lived a charmed life most of the game as hard-hit balls became outs and his defense stepped up. Two baserunning mistakes by Jose Bautista also helped him, producing outs at the plate and at third base.
The third inning ended with two men on when Chase Headley turned a hot shot by Kevin Pillar into a forceout at second. Gary Sanchez threw out Melvin Upton Jr. trying to steal second for the first out of the fourth.
Judge caught Navarro’s drive at the top of the rightfield wall for the first out of the seventh. That was Tanaka’s last batter. Jonathan Holder came in and got an out before walking a pair of Jays to load the bases, and Heller allowed Encarnacion’s two-run single to right to make it 5-3.
The Baby Bomber relievers were in the game because Adam Warren was unavailable.
“Holder got a big out for us and Tommy Layne had to finish it up,” Girardi said. “I believe in these kids and they’re going to get more comfortable and you’ve just got to keep throwing them out there.”