Forget the American League’s second wild card.
With three more games in this series against the last-place Rays, the Yankees could be on the heels of the AL East leader by the end of the weekend.
Led by Brian McCann’s two home runs and rookie Tyler Austin’s walk-off homer with two outs in the ninth, the Yankees made it five straight victories Thursday night with an at-times-ugly 5-4 victory over Tampa Bay in front of 27,631 at the Stadium.
“They’re excited in there, and they should be. They’re playing extremely well,” Joe Girardi said. “I do think they’re getting that feeling.”
Said McCann: “We feel we’re in it. We feel we’re playing our best baseball in September. We’re right there in the mix.”
The Yankees, who have won 11 of their last 15 games, pulled within four games of the AL East-leading Red Sox, who were idle. The more realistic goal, of course, is the second AL wild-card spot. They picked up ground there, too, inching within two games of the idle Orioles.
Because Boston (78-61) faces Toronto (77-62) and Baltimore (76-63) plays Detroit (75-64) this weekend, the Yankees (74-65) could gain on some or all of those teams by taking care of business against Tampa Bay (59-80).
“I think everybody in this clubhouse believes we can make a push at this thing and get in the postseason,” Austin said. “It’s an exciting time right now.”
The Rays, who went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine, came back from 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3 deficits as Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza Jr. each hit a pair of solo home runs.
Rays righthander Erasmo Ramirez entered the game with two outs in the ninth inning and fell behind Austin 3-and-0. Then the righthanded-hitting Austin, who homered in his first big-league at-bat Aug. 13, hammered a full-count pitch over the scoreboard in right-center for his third homer of the season.
“That might top the first game up here,” he said of his game-winner, which had his jubilant teammates leaping over the dugout railing and, almost before he reached home plate, resulted in a dousing that left him drenched. “It doesn’t get any better than that right there.”
Tommy Layne, the last of five Yankees relievers, picked up the victory. CC Sabathia lasted only four innings-plus, allowing three runs and seven hits, including three home runs.
As has been the case during much of this stretch, Girardi’s moves worked out — even with a depleted bullpen (Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and Luis Severino were unavailable because of recent workloads).
That began in the fifth. After back-to-back singles by Logan Forsythe and Kiermaier and with Sabathia nemesis Evan Longoria coming up, Girardi brought in rookie righty Jonathan Holder, and he got Longoria to ground into a 5-4-3 double play.
With Alexei Ramirez at the plate, a balk was called, allowing Forsythe to come home and tie the score at 4-4. But Girardi argued with plate umpire Mike Everitt, also the crew chief. Everitt huddled with the three other umpires and the call was reversed, as it was determined that Holder was gesturing to McCann for clarification of the signs. Ramirez grounded to third to end the inning.
Holder allowed a long homer to centerfield by Souza in the sixth to tie it at 4, but Chasen Shreve, Blake Parker, Kirby Yates and Layne combined to throw three scoreless innings after that.
“It’s hard to explain,” Girardi said of yet another pieced-together victory, “because we didn’t have a lot of our relievers tonight, but all of the relievers came in and did a good job tonight.”
Facing righthander Alex Cobb, McCann gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the second, hammering a drive into the suite level — located above the second deck — in rightfield. Kiermaier’s second homer made it 3-3 in the third, but in the fourth, McCann sent another one deep into the night, this one into the second deck in rightfield, for his 19th homer and a 4-3 lead.
“It just tells you a lot about the guys in this room,” Sabathia said. “It’s on us now to keep it going and make a run at this.”