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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees better worry about wild-card berth

Greg Bird  of the Yankees celebrates his home run

Greg Bird  of the Yankees celebrates his home run against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 31, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Whether or not the Yankees claimed to notice, the other combatants in the American League wild-card race were rapidly gaining on them as they prepared for Thursday’s arrival of the Red Sox. The problem with looking in the rearview mirror is that any object, such as a rival contender, is always closer than it appears. And in this case, quickly building momentum.

After all this time looking up, the Yankees might have been better served taking a glance behind them, because that’s where the real threats are looming. Catching the Red Sox remains a possibility, thanks to Thursday’s 6-2 victory in the Bronx, a win that shaved their deficit to 4 1/2 games. But the Yankees should be more concerned about fending off the Twins and Orioles, as well as a resurgent Angels team led by GM Billy Eppler, one of Brian Cashman’s former lieutenants.

“The most important thing is to worry about your own team,” Joe Girardi said before Thursday’s game. “To pay attention to what we’re doing.”

Either way, the day-to-day mission is the same, and fairly straightforward. Start by outscoring the other team, and the Yankees finally did that for a change after being outclassed by the Indians during a sobering three-game sweep this week. CC Sabathia, now 8-0 after a Yankees loss this season, set the tone by shaking off early trouble to deliver six strong innings — along with some passionate outbursts on the mound, and a few choice expletives directed toward the Red Sox dugout.

Greg Bird homered for the second time in as many days, providing the spark Joe Girardi has been alluding to after his lengthy DL stint, and now has seven RBIs in two games. Considering how dark this Yankees’ collective funk has been, Bird may figure to be the guy with the flashlight, showing them the way out of a gloomy August. During the past month, the Yankees have been atop the wild-card pile, but played as if they belonged at the bottom, with a .730 OPS (10th in AL) and 13-15 record.

That trend couldn’t continue, not with the other clubs sensing blood in the water. On Thursday, over at Target Field, the Twins scored two runs in the ninth, and beat the White Sox on a walk off hit-by-pitch to close within a half-game of the Yankees before their victory. Ageless wonder Bartolo Colon also struck out eight — the kind of freaky mojo that makes you wonder if there’s something special happening in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

And did we mention what’s going on with old pal Buck Showalter down in Baltimore? The slugging Orioles have been the sport’s most dangerous offensive threat lately, leading the majors in both OPS (.879) and home runs (55) the past month. That’s propelled them to two games behind the Twins, with the Angels sandwiched in-between.

All the Angels did Thursday was trade for Justin Upton’s career-best .904 OPS and 24 homers to put beside Mike Trout in the outfield, before Eppler also attempted to pry second baseman Brandon Phillips from the Braves. As for the Yankees, they summoned Giovanny Gallego from Triple-A Scranton for bullpen help and acquired Erik Kratz, a 37-year-old catcher, from the Indians (actually, Triple-A Columbus) as backup for when Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine serve their suspensions in the coming days.

OK, so Cashman fired the big guns before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, and those deals — for Sonny Gray, Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle -- were supposed to position them for AL East supremacy. The wild card already was in the Yankees’ back pocket, if they ultimately needed to go that route.

We’re just as guilty for believing it, under the assumption the Yankees were simply a better team, on paper, than the rest of a flawed wild-card pack. That’s probably still true. But they have to win occasionally, too, something the Yankees weren’t doing as often as the Twins, Angels or Orioles this month.

Thumping the Red Sox in Thursday’s series opener kept the division title on the table. Creating a little more space in the wild-card neighborhood, however, feels more crucial these days

New York Sports