ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — You’ll get no one with the Yankees to cop to the notion of putting a hammerlock on the division before the All-Star break, nor should they.
But just as they may have put the Red Sox in too deep a hole with their demolition of Boston in the London Series, this four-game set against the second-place Rays presents a similar opportunity.
And the Yankees, after a wild blown save by Aroldis Chapman in the ninth, put themselves on that road Thursday with an 8-4 victory in 10 innings at Tropicana Field. They’re 8-2 against the Rays, whom they lead by a season-high 7 ½ games (the Red Sox remained 11 games back).
“It’s a good lead, but all I keep saying to our guys is we’ve put ourselves in a position to have a great season, but that’s all,” Aaron Boone said. “But that’s all.”
With the bases loaded and none out in the 10th, DJ LeMahieu — who else? — snapped a 3-3 tie by grounding a two-run single to leftfield off Emilio Pagan. That made him 36-for-75 with runners in scoring position this season, including a ridiculous 9-for-11 with the bases loaded.
Gary Sanchez extended the lead to 8-3 with a monstrous three-run homer into the second deck in leftfield that traveled an estimated 461 feet, a bomb that had players still shaking their heads afterward.
“It was maybe the farthest ball I’ve ever seen hit,” LeMahieu said. “I don’t know what the Statcast on it was, but it’s 500 feet. I don’t care what anybody says.”
Luis Cessa managed to insert some drama in the bottom of the 10th, allowing a run, then departing with the bases loaded and two outs, leaving it to David Hale to face Yandy Diaz. Hale fell behind 3-and-1 before getting a groundout to short, giving the Yankees (56-29) their 15th win in their last 17 games.
“It’s not a secret the kind of team we have here,” Sanchez said through his translator, referring to shaking off the disappointment of Chapman’s third blown save of the season. “We never give up. It doesn’t matter what happens.”
Gio Urshela, who began the day in New York for an MRI (which came back clean) and entered the game in the seventh as a defensive replacement, started the 10th with a walk against Oliver Drake. Aaron Judge pinch hit for Mike Tauchman and worked a 10-pitch walk, and Brett Gardner’s bunt to the third-base side of the mound went for a hit and loaded the bases.
In came Pagan, whose first pitch went to the backstop, with the runners holding. LeMahieu pulled his second pitch through the drawn-in infield into leftfield to make it 5-3.
After Aaron Hicks struck out, Sanchez launched a first-pitch slider into the second deck in left — a location rarely visited by baseballs here. He has 24 homers and 57 RBIs in 251 at-bats and 65 games.
That all came after a crazy ninth.
Chapman, named to his sixth All-Star Game over the weekend, came on to protect a 3-1 lead and walked Nate Lowe to start the inning on four pitches. Joey Wendle doubled to left-center, driving in Lowe from first. The Yankees challenged, saying the sliding Lowe missed the plate with his left hand, but the replay umpire upheld plate umpire Ted Barrett’s safe call.
Chapman got Travis d’Arnaud to fly to right, but with Guillermo Heredia at the plate, he threw two wild pitches that allowed Wendle to score, tying it at 3. The second of those was a 100-mph, 2-and-2 fastball that came in low that Sanchez said he should have stopped.
Heredia and Diaz singled and Tommy Pham walked to load the bases, but after falling behind Austin Meadows 2-and-0, Chapman struck him out. “He finally showed he’s human,” Boone said of Chapman, whose ERA went from 1.36 to 1.85.
The late-inning activity mostly overshadowed a good outing by J.A. Happ, who allowed one run and three hits in 5 1⁄3 innings. Tauchman singled home a run and scored on Hicks’ two-out double in the third to make it 2-1 and Edwin Encarnacion’s 25th homer made it 3-1 in the seventh.
“At the end of the day,” Chapman said through his translator, “this team has a tenacity that just finds a way to get it done.”