TORONTO — The Yankees are officially headed where few, at least outside the clubhouse, thought they would go in 2017: the playoffs.
They clinched at least a wild-card spot Saturday afternoon with a 5-1 victory over the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
“Coming into spring training, a lot of people on the outside looking in had this as a rebuilding year for us,” Brett Gardner said. “A lot of guys in the room really believed that we could get back here from Day 1. It feels good to exceed expectations.”
The Yankees (86-68) still are mathematically alive in the race for the AL East title but are all but certain to host the American League wild-card game Oct. 3.
“We always believed in ourselves,” said Luis Severino, who, barring something unforeseen, will start that game.
Or, as Chase Headley put it: “We’re a lot better than people thought we were.”
Though the Yankees would prefer to somehow steal the division crown from the Red Sox, that’s unlikely, as they’re four behind with eight to play. And so Saturday night was for celebrating the achievement of a playoff berth, a spot in the tournament and the chance at a World Series title that is earned by the 10 teams that qualify.
“It’s great,” Aaron Judge said as players doused each other in copious amounts of champagne and beer that quickly flooded the cramped visitor’s clubhouse. “But it’s just the beginning for this team. We’re not done yet. We have a lot of goals for this team, a lot of stuff we want to do. This is just the beginning, getting a chance to be in the postseason. Now we have to keep it rolling.”
Many of the elements the Yankees, and plenty of opposing team scouts, believe will make them a tough out in the postseason were on display Saturday as they won for the 15th time in their last 20 games.
There was power — Greg Bird and Todd Frazier homered — and solid starting pitching from Sonny Gray. And, of course, more terrific work by the bullpen, with Chad Green, David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman combining for three perfect innings.
Bird’s three-run homer in the fifth inning gave the Yankees a 3-1 lead, one that Gray made stand up. The righthander, a victim of poor run support during much of his time with the Yankees after being acquired from the A’s in late July, allowed a run and four hits in six innings. He is 4-6 with a 3.12 ERA for the Yankees and 10-11, 3.31 overall.
“We have one of the best bullpens in all of baseball. We’ve got a stacked lineup,” Judge said. “And we have fun. We compete our butt off every single pitch. We never take a pitch off.”
Gray’s biggest mistake was a 1-and-0 fastball that Teoscar Herandez rocketed to dead center with one out in the third to give the Blue Jays (72-83) a 1-0 lead.
Toronto righthander Joe Biagini came in 3-11 with a 5.33 ERA but brought that 1-0 lead into the top of the fifth. Chase Headley led off with a walk and stole second. Jacoby Ellsbury struck out, but Starlin Castro walked to bring up Bird, who hammered a first-pitch cutter to rightfield for his sixth homer of the season. He knew it was gone off the bat, as did Biagini, and rightfielder Jose Bautista barely moved.
Green fanned two in the seventh, giving him 101 strikeouts in 66 1⁄3 innings, and Robertson — given a 4-1 lead by Frazier’s 27th homer — struck out two in the eighth.
Gary Sanchez doubled and scored on Castro’s infield single in the ninth to make Chapman’s appearance a non-save situation. Former Yankee Rob Refsnyder grounded out to end it. The postgame handshake line looked like any other that follows a victory, but the Yankees let loose upon reaching the clubhouse.
Indeed, 2018, the season most targeted as the year the Yankees would reemerge as a contender after the 2016 trade deadline fire sale, arrived early.
“To see the kids kind of grow up in front of you,” Joe Girardi said, “it’s special.”