If Brett Gardner can make a game-saving catch by clinging to half a baseball, if Blake Parker — look him up — can freeze Kevin Pillar to make his amazing escape feasible, if the Yankees can overcome watching Dellin Betances crumble through a painful 40-pitch meltdown, then who are we to say what’s possible or not anymore?
For the Yankees, it’s time to put aside the playoff projections, the mathematical formulas responsible for telling everyone what to believe in. After Tuesday’s breathtaking 7-6 victory over the Blue Jays, a win that was swan-diving into the loss column as an entire stadium watched Justin Smoak’s long fly ball float toward the leftfield seats, we need to recalibrate our expectations of what these Yankees — now just 4 1/2 games back in the AL East — can accomplish over this final month.
Heading into Tuesday night, the Yankees had a 3.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. The longest of long shots for teams still on the radar for a postseason berth. And when Smoak lifted that Parker curveball into a misty sky, with the bases loaded and the Yankees desperately hugging a 7-6 lead, those odds began sliding toward zero.
“I had a little chill down my back,” Parker said later, smiling.
But Gardner kept fading toward the warning track, and as he reached up, glove met ball as he collided with the scoreboard. For a moment, no one seemed exactly sure what had happened. Even Gardner had to look in his glove to be positive.
“I felt it go in, but I felt it moving around a little bit,” Gardner said. “When I hit the wall, it was kind of loud. I was just fortunate that it stayed in there.”
Chase Headley, whose two-run homer in the eighth inning turned out to be the game-winner, had faith in Gardner. But with the back-and-forth nature of the crazy night, conventional wisdom left the building well before the ninth inning. Maybe his fingers were crossed inside his own glove as he watched from third base. The only consolation, in his mind, was that lefty hitters don’t usually go deep to Death Valley. “The way the wind was blowing, you didn’t really know what it was going to do,” Headley said.
His manager agreed. The Yankees rescued Joe Girardi with their four-run barrage in the eighth, the salvo that flipped a 4-3 deficit to 7-4 lead, after he went a little too bullpen-happy in the top half of that inning. Girardi didn’t have Tyler Clippard, who had pitched three straight days, so he was forced to get creative in trying to reach Betances.
Girardi did ultimately get to him, with a three-run edge, but it didn’t help as Betances gradually began to unravel. He whiffed Russell Martin for the only out of his 40-pitch effort and Girardi refused to push him any further. Betances tried to wave him off, but Girardi ignored his exhausted closer. Good thing, too, because the game may have ended much differently if he rode Betances any longer.
“You want to stay out there as long as you can, but I understand the decision,” Betances said. “I was just glad that we won the game.”
Removing Betances, however, was hardly any guarantee of victory. There was still too much heavy lifting, and it was up to Parker — the unlikeliest of heroes — to finish what Betances could not. Striking out Pillar was big, but only half the job. And when Smoak connected, the smattering of fans that remained probably weren’t all that optimistic.
“I was worried,” Girardi said.
Many of the Yankees were too far away to see whether Gardner had it. They didn’t really know until Gardner’s celebration, a rare outburst of emotion for an otherwise fairly stoic guy.
“As soon as he jumped up, and it was in his glove, everybody jumped up,” said Didi Gregorius, who added a key RBI-triple in the eighth, then scored on Starlin Castro’s sacrifice fly. “Everybody is stepping up — it’s not just one person. We have really great momentum. We’re not going to give up.”
The Yankees didn’t Tuesday night, and won the kind of game that makes you believe them.