The Yankees were nine outs away from seeing a lead that once was 10 games get shaved to one. They had done virtually nothing offensively for six innings while getting lucky as their pitchers gave the Orioles several chances to score more than three runs.
When the seventh inning came, the Yankees needed runs any way they could find them.
They found three runs without a home run and avoided another frustrating loss by getting a bases-loaded walk from Derek Jeter and having Nick Swisher reach on a fielding error by shortstop J.J. Hardy in Saturday’s 4-3 victory over the Orioles.
The Yankees ensured that regardless of the outcome Sunday they will leave for Tampa Bay in sole possession of first place for the 82nd straight day. They went from seeing their lead reduced to one game for the first time since mid-June to taking a three-game edge over the Orioles.
“I tell you guys all the time, I’m a firm believer and I don’t look at the standings,” Jeter said. “The position we’re in if we win we’ll be fine.”
Still even with Jeter’s calm demeanor, this ranked as the biggest win of the season so far.
“I think that was a great win for us,” Swisher said. “We scratched and we clawed and scraped for runs tonight and hopefully that’s a game that can maybe get us out of this little thing we’re in right now and get us going in the right direction.
“We know we’re playing against a good team right now. We don’t have all the pieces to our puzzle but we’re a no-excuse type of team. We’ve got to go out and get the job done. Either way you try to not wrap your head around it in a negative way, but for us to go out and pull that win off the way we did, that’s good for us.”
There was more to the win than getting some good breaks and bounces. The three-run seventh featured Steve Pearce getting his first hit as a Yankee. Pearce then moved to second when Jayson Nix fought back from 0-2 to draw a walk. He then scored on Eduardo Nunez’s first hit in the majors in nearly four months.
“You don’t have a choice,” Swisher said. “If you’re in the lineup, you don’t have a choice. Everybody that’s here right now is expected to go out and play well and having Nunie back it’s like old times.”
Nunez’s big hit was followed by Ichiro drawing a walk and Jeter coming back from 0-2. When Jeter took a changeup from Pedro Strop for a close call on ball four, the Yankees tied the game.
“I’m comfortable,” Jeter said. “I like to be in that position, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be successful. I’ve failed many times. When you’re in that position, you try to think of the success that you’ve had. But he’s tough. He’s a tough pitcher.”
“You look at some of our guys -- they get down 0-2 in the count and they come back and take their walks,” Girardi said. “It was just an outstanding job on their part taking what the Orioles gave us, grinding out some at-bats and giving us the lead.”
The rally seemingly was about to be halted when Swisher hit a hard grounder to Hardy. Normally a sure-handed defender, Hardy could not handle the high hop and Nunez scored the go-ahead run.
“I was running,” Swisher said. “That ball did have a little English on it. I figured he’d knock it down.”
The comeback came on a day that could have been more disastrous for the Yankees, who have won just six of their last 15 games.
It started with David Phelps struggling to command the strike zone, while Curtis Granderson was removed after suffering tightness in his right hamstring on a check swing strikeout for the second out of the second.
Phelps kept the Yankees in it by getting two double plays but otherwise it was a struggle as he allowed three runs and three hits on a career-high six walks. He gave up runs in the opening two innings and then a solo home run to Matt Wieters in the fourth.
“He did manage some innings,” Girardi said. “He could have given up a lot more runs.”
By the time Wieters connected, 3-0 seemed like an even larger deficit as the Yankees were stifled by Wei-Yin Chen most of the day. Chen retired the first 11 hitters before Robinson Cano hit his 28th home run of the season, one of the few times they were able to solve Chen’s deception until the seventh.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.