The AL East is officially on notice: These Yankees are for real.
It’s difficult to explain what’s happened to them in the last month and a half — at the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline, they appeared to all but stick a “Fire Sale” sign on their dugout — but what’s certain is that the inconceivable has become unmistakable.
With a 5-1 win over the Rays on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, the team that was supposed to have no shot at a wild card is only three games behind the AL East-leading Red Sox with every opportunity to make up ground.
“The guys feel really good about themselves and we’ve been playing really, really well,” said Joe Girardi, whose team has won 20 of its last 29 games. “We’ve been playing tough teams for a long time. The focus has been to win series and we’ve done a pretty good job of that and this homestand has started off great and we need it to continue. We’re scoring runs and we’re pitching well and the bullpen has been outstanding and it’s a great combination.”
Scoring runs. Pitching well. Hardly a novel concept. But this team has done it in many ways.
On Saturday, it meant yet another masterful performance by Masahiro Tanaka — now solidly established as one of the best pitchers in the league — and another great game by rookie Gary Sanchez, who seems to have emerged from a brief slump after a brilliant start.
The Yankees have won seven in a row, their longest winning streak since 2013, and have a chance to do some real damage down the stretch, with 18 of their final 21 games coming against division rivals. Their destiny is in their hands.
“It’s there for the taking,” Girardi said before the game. Back when the Yankees traded Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran, those words sounded like platitudes. Now they’re reality.
The Yankees are 11 games over .500, building on what already was a season high, and have won nine of 11 and 13 of 17. They remained two games behind the Blue Jays for the first wild card, remained one game behind the Orioles for the second wild card and moved into a tie with the Tigers, who lost to Baltimore on Saturday night.
Tanaka (13-4) allowed one run, five hits and no walks in 7 1⁄3 innings, striking out a season-high 10, and Jacoby Ellsbury and Sanchez hit back-to-back homers in the sixth inning to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead.
Sanchez drove in another run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth. That might not sound like much, but we probably should mention here that the Rays were trying to intentionally walk him at the time.
Tanaka’s ERA dropped to 3.04, third best in the American League.
“I just got [my mechanics] back to where I want it to be and that’s the way I’m pitching right now,” Tanaka — who showcased a nasty splitter all afternoon along with a more-than-adequate slider — said through a translator. “You make little adjustments here and there, and eventually you find that one right thing. For me, it was the balance on my right foot when I get into the pitching motion, when I’m lifting my left leg — how I’m balanced on my right foot.”
The game was scoreless until the sixth, when Brett Gardner led off with a single and Ellsbury jacked Chris Archer’s 2-and-1 fastball over the scoreboard in right-center. Three pitches later, Sanchez did the same, blasting a 1-and-1 slider into the right side of the Rays’ bullpen in left-center. It was his second home run in two days and the 13th in his short but memorable major-league career. Sanchez is one of only five major-league players with at least 13 homers in his first 35 games, and he’s reached safely in all but one of his last 24 games.
Bobby Wilson’s solo home run just eluded a leaping Gardner in the eighth to draw the Rays to within 3-1, and Tanaka hit the next batter, Logan Forsythe, to end his day. Adam Warren hit Nick Franklin to bring the go-ahead run to the plate with one out, but Evan Longoria grounded into a 6-4-3 double play.
The Yankees got it back (and then some) in the eighth. Gardner led off with a single and Ellsbury hit a ground-rule double to leftfield to put two runners in scoring position. Reliever Enny Romero attempted to intentionally walk Sanchez, but his first pitch was a 52-mph lob that got a little too close to the strike zone, and Sanchez flied out to the left-centerfield wall to drive in Gardner and move Ellsbury to third. On the next pitch, Didi Gregorius’ sacrifice fly made it 5-1.
Said Starlin Castro, “We went in fighting and we just continue fighting.”
And now everyone can’t help but take notice.
The Yankees have outscored their opponents, 36-21, during their seven-game winning streak:
9/4 Orioles, 5-2
9/5 Blue Jays, 5-3
9/6 Blue Jays, 7-6
9/7 Blue Jays, 2-0
9/8 Rays, 5-4
9/9 Rays, 7-5
9/10 Rays, 5-1