Saying that this game was a potential wild-card playoff preview was underselling it. For starters, the Yankees hope that it wasn’t. They still want to win the division. Besides, this one actually felt like the postseason, from start to finish, the two points at which the Yankees were strongest.
Jaime Garcia opened the game and pitched well enough to win, going 5 2⁄3 innings and allowing no earned runs. He left with the score tied but he had put them on the right track. And his friend, the closer Aroldis Chapman, kept them there. The latter cleaned up Dellin Betances’ mess in the eighth, got five outs and saved a 2-1 win over the Twins, who they might see again two weeks from Tuesday.
“It’s a possibility, but at the same time, each game is big for us,” said Garcia, who struck out nine against a team that he had been part of for six days. “They have a really good lineup over there, they have a lot of things going for them.”
What the Yankees have going now is a five-game lead over the Twins for the top wild-card position and the right to host the one-game playoff. They also made a bit of a stride at avoiding the wild-card crapshoot altogether by remaining three games behind the Red Sox.
Garcia was acquired from the Twins from the Braves then was dealt to the Yankees after the Twins determined (inaccurately) that they were not close enough to the playoffs to merit being buyers instead of sellers. He pointed out Monday night that he never was in Minnesota, having come and gone while the team was on the road. Still, he says he established friendships.
The same thing has happened in New York. He has developed a bond with Chapman. The closer, speaking through an interpreter, said, “We’ve had the opportunity to chat and talk a lot about baseball. It’s funny because we talked about the slider a little bit, he was helping me with my slider. I actually thought tonight he was the one with the better slider.”
Fortunately for the Yankees, Chapman was the only one with a 103 mile-per-hour fastball. He came into a bases-loaded jam with one out in the eighth after Betances had really put the “wild” in the wild-card chase by hitting a batter, walking two and making a wild pitch. Chapman realized he had to be aggressive and struck out Joe Mauer and retired Byron Buxton on a fly to right on his way to his 19th save.
“He looks amazing. I wish I had his arm,” said David Robertson (9-2), the winning pitcher. “It’s unfair the way he throws.”
Truth is, though, Chapman has emerged from his own Betances-like slump, during which he temporarily lost the ninth-inning role.
“Sometimes, you try to do too many things at the same times and that doesn’t help,” Chapman said. “I think at that time I was trying too many things, mechanically.” He added that the encouragement he received from teammates was one of the greatest factors in his turnaround.
Monday night, a lift came from a usual source: the bat of Aaron Judge. He took Ervin Santana (15-8) deep in the first inning, his 44th homer in a prodigious season. Just after Garcia left the game, Chase Headley and Starlin Castro singled and Todd Frazier drove home Headley with a deciding sacrifice fly.
Had Garcia remained in for one more out, he would have notched his first Yankee win. No problem. He was not steamed, as he had been when Joe Girardi gave him a quick hook with two outs in the fifth last Wednesday. “We won the game,” Garcia said this time. “It was sweet.”
If not for him, maybe Chapman would not have had the chance to be a hero. The closer said of the starter, “To me, he looked really, really good today.”