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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees are on a wild ride in the AL wild-card race

Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees pitches

Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees pitches in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016. Credit: Jim McIsaac

In the midst of the Yankees’ generational shift and September roster expansion, it’s important to note that even 11-year pros, with experience on two continents, are only human. After Monday’s national anthem, Masahiro Tanaka took the field with his teammates but strolled only halfway to the mound before suddenly stopping. He reached behind him, took a plastic water bottle out of his back pocket, then fired it toward the Yankees’ dugout.

For a pitcher meticulous about preparation, the odd hiccup during those final few steps was an unusual sight, and a bit of foreshadowing for his afternoon as a whole. Later, Tanaka said the entire day was a struggle, as he lacked an effective slider and great command overall. And still his 6 1⁄3 innings spearheaded the Yankees’ 5-3 victory over the Blue Jays, a win that relied on Tanaka’s guile as the rudder for another rookie-fueled conquest of a division foe.

“I think I was all over the place,” Tanaka said through his translator. “It was just a grind. I had to keep grinding mentally.”

That’s how it’s going to be for the Yankees in September as they fight to stay alive in the wild-card race, reverting to Scranton-inspired lineups propped up by the resident Bronx millionaires. Despite what his binder might tell him, for Joe Girardi, there’s no predicting where that game’s production will come from.

The day after he sat in Baltimore, Jacoby Ellsbury went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs, tying his season high. Tyler Austin interrupted Mark Teixeira’s farewell tour with a pair of doubles and two RBIs. And when Girardi opted to pull Tanaka with one out in the seventh inning after 105 pitches, the manager bridged the gap to Tyler Clippard by taking a leap of faith with Jonathan Holder, Ben Heller and Tommy Layne.

Not exactly No Runs DMC — the seventh inning used to belong to Dellin Betances, remember — but Girardi still got to Clippard and eventually Betances. Afterward, he explained that Adam Warren wasn’t available, so he had to roll the dice with the newly imported rookie arms.

“I believe in them,” Girardi said. “I believe they can get big outs.”

This figured to be the developmental stage of the Yankees’ season, a chance for Girardi and Brian Cashman to evaluate what they had before shuffling the deck again to contend in 2017. Instead, the Yankees are a year ahead of that schedule, so now they’re trying to do both things simultaneously.

It helps when Girardi can hand the ball to Tanaka, who is 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA in his last six starts. He’s been the stabilizing force in an ever-shifting rotation, and on Monday, he climbed off the ropes in the first inning to beat the Blue Jays. Tanaka is 12-4 with a 3.11 ERA and without a peep regarding his elbow, shoulder or whatever else pitchers chirp about these days.

That’s good, because Girardi has plenty of other stuff to worry about, such as juggling his three catchers or wondering where to draw the line with Aaron Judge’s humbling visits to the plate. Judge continued his strikeout parade Monday with three more whiffs that raised his total to 35 in 65 at-bats. He’s fanned 19 times in his last 26 at-bats, a demoralizing stretch that should haunt any manager’s conscience, no matter how well-adjusted Judge seems to be.

“It’s a learning curve, everywhere you go, at every level,” Judge said.

If this were the rebuilding process we all assumed it would be, then fine, Girardi could keep testing Judge. But if the Yankees intend to stay in the wild-card race, giving Judge a mental breather wouldn’t be the worst thing. Let him relax for a night and maybe get something more than a few swings from that spot in the lineup.

To Judge’s credit, he did make two nifty defensive plays Monday, diving to rob Devon Travis of a potential RBI single in the second inning and reaching to the top of the rightfield wall to rob Dioner Navarro of a potential two-run homer in the seventh.

“I’m just going to stick to what I’m doing,” Judge said. “Things will work out.”

The same is true for the Yankees. What they’re doing is working. And whether it should or shouldn’t doesn’t really seem to matter.

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