New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi looks on against the...

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi looks on against the Tampa Bay Rays during an MLB baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Welcome to Bizarro New York Baseball, where the Yankees are the Plucky Little Team That Could and the Mets have “World Series-or-bust” signs hanging around their necks.

Even as the Yankees have crept closer, no one really expected them to make the playoffs. Except for one guy.

The man in the dugout.

“I told you we expected to win from day one,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Thursday night, hours before rookie Tyler Austin hit a walk-off home run with two outs in the ninth inning for a 5-4 victory over the Rays at Yankee Stadium. “So there’s going to be disappointment if we don’t get to where we want to get.”

The Yankees are getting there, improbably. They are two games behind Baltimore for the final wild-card spot and four games behind the AL East-leading Red Sox.

Ya Gotta Believe? In the Bronx?

“Hey, we have a shot,” Girardi said, “and in this game, that’s what you look forward to.”

If the Yankees do make it, Girardi has to get some Manager of the Year votes. Maybe most of them.

The Yankees have seven games left with Boston, four with Toronto and three with Baltimore, all three of which are playoff teams at the moment.

“It’s an exciting time right now,” said Austin, who belted a 3-and-2 pitch from Erasmo Ramirez over the right-centerfield wall for the first walk-off hit of his 17-game big-league career.

The Yankees, winners of five straight and 11 of their last 15, are playing their best ball of the season. And that’s after the fire sale trades of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova, the pomp and circumstance-filled release of Alex Rodriguez and the deemphasizing of Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann (although McCann hit two long home runs Thursday night).

The deals were done for tomorrow. But tomorrow is here faster than anyone imagined.

On Thursday night, Girardi had rookies Austin, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge in the lineup. With the meat of the pen getting the night off, the relievers Girardi used (in order of appearance) were Jonathan Holder, Chasen Shreve, Blake Parker, Tyler Yates and Tommy Layne. Combined runs allowed in five innings: one.

“It’s amazing what these kids have been able to do for us,” Girardi said. “It’s hard to explain.”

The Baby Bombers are on the stage and the Yankees are in the race, even to the surprise of an opposing manager.

“When you start injecting some real young guys in there, very little experience, you don’t know what to expect,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said this week. “And they’re all playing, too. Some of them have had their ups and downs, but they keep winning. They’re doing something right. I’ve got to believe nobody in the baseball world really expected them to hang around like they did, but they’ve done it. Tip your hat to them.”

Gibbons did a lot of hat-tipping when he left the Bronx on Wednesday. His Blue Jays were swept out of first place. Now the Yankees have their eyes on more than just a wild card.

“I do think they’re getting that feeling,” Girardi said.

The youngsters aren’t wilting under the crucible of a sweaty playoff race. Just the opposite. “I think a lot of times, the pressure a rookie feels comes from within, where you want to prove that you belong,” Girardi said. “But the expectations maybe weren’t quite as high on them because of where we were at in the standings, and that probably helped.”

Girardi’s right — the expectations weren’t high. Except from the man in the dugout, who wasn’t going to accept a lost season. That probably helped. Maybe all the way to the playoffs.


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