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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

In shortened season, 'Game 3' win for Yankees takes on more meaning

Yankees starting pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga works the first

Yankees starting pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga works the first inning against the Nationals at Nationals Park on Sunday in Washington. Credit: Getty Images/Patrick Smith

Maybe the Yankees won’t confess to treating each game as if it’s three times more important this year. Or 2.7, to be exact.

But don’t tell me that Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Nationals, in the empty backyard of the defending world champs, didn’t look and feel way more intense than your typical third game on the schedule.

Did Gleyber Torres save the season with a three-hit day that included the home run that knocked out Nationals starter Patrick Corbin and the tiebreaking two-out single in the eighth inning? We wouldn’t go quite that far.

But let’s acknowledge one thing: If Corbin had continued to cruise instead of getting pulled after 75 pitches and the Nationals had wound up taking the series — with neither Juan Soto nor Stephen Strasburg making an appearance — what’s the conversation like then?

Going by the 2020 calculus and rounding up, 6-3 sounds much better than would 3-6, especially after James Paxton got thumped in Saturday’s loss.

“I heard that it’s almost like every game is a sweep,” said Luke Voit, who hit a tying homer off reliever Will Harris in the seventh. “I think it’s like 2.7 for every win, so it was a big series. It’s good to get off to a hot start.”

Only in a 60-game season would anyone characterize a 2-1 record as a “hot start.” The Yankees officially played only five innings in Thursday’s rain-shortened 4-1 win, so this series didn’t even go three completed games. And when they began the seventh inning Sunday in a 2-0 hole with Corbin in command (eight strikeouts, no walks, one hit), the urgency felt a little more, um, urgent.

Going in, manager Aaron Boone had pegged the series finale as a bullpen game — a placeholder for Masahiro Tanaka’s next turn — and it was a smidge unsettling when his opener, Jonathan Loaisiga, needed 11 pitches just to get the first out, a strikeout of Trea Turner. But Loaisiga, whose fastball maxed at 99 mph,still got the Yankees through three innings and allowed only one run on Turner’s two-out homer in the third.

Former Yankee Starlin Castro doubled off David Hale in the fourth and scored when Eric Thames ripped a single through a right side flooded by the Yankees’ shift. With Corbin cruising, there was a sense the Nationals could make that 2-0 lead hold up.

On the Yankees’ comeback road, the bullpen had to drive the bus, and they were without Aroldis Chapman, who was home in New York waiting for a second negative COVID-19 test to reinstate him. But Boone got the five scoreless innings he needed, including two from Chad Green, a high-wire setup job by Tommy Kahnle and a white-knuckle closing cameo by Zack Britton.

Called on to protect a 3-2 edge, Kahnle wound up striking out the side in the eighth but still needed to bail out Torres for a throwing error that put Turner on, as well as escape a bases-loaded jam. With runners at second and third, Kahnle threw five straight changeups to whiff Castro for the second out. After an intentional walk to Howie Kendrick, he struck out Thames, again with a changeup.

“It was a high-pressure situation,” Kahnle said, “and I loved it.”

In those spots, it definitely was bizarre to see Nationals Park — the same stadium that was rocking all through October — nearly devoid of energy. The Yankees didn’t even have the usual road-villain vibe to groove on. You can’t silence a ballpark that’s already been permanently silenced. When Britton entered for the ninth, he brought his own adrenaline, a 2020 blend of simmering weirdness and a return to the closer’s role.

“I felt almost too amped up,” he said.

It didn’t help that Gary Sanchez’s passed ball put the tying run at second base, but he quickly redeemed himself by throwing out Emilio Bonifacio trying to steal third — and got a key assist from Gio Urshela, who held the tag on him while he overslid the bag.

We have a while before the expanded playoffs, but there is nothing regular about this season, and Voit said Sunday had “more of a September-August feel.”

Afterward, even Boone, mask pulled down around his neck, looked exhausted.

“We emptied the tank a little bit today,” he said.

And they did all that just to stay in a three-way tie for first with the Rays and Orioles. Only 57 more games to go.

New York Sports