For most of the afternoon, the Yankees struggled against James Shields’ array of off-speed pitches and rarely came close to hitting those pitches when they were in the strike zone.
In the bottom of the eighth inning that changed, and because it did, the Yankees are headed to the playoffs.
“It’s the first step of three that you want to accomplish in the regular
season,” manager Joe Girardi said. “The first one is to get in, the
second one is to win your division and the third one is to have home
field advantage throughout. It’s the first step and you’ve got a shot
The unlikely hero proved to be Eduardo Nunez, whose game-tying home run was the spark to a 4-2 victory over the Rays.
“I’m so excited to hit a home run in this moment,” Nunez said. “I was waiting for a good pitch to hit the ball hard.”
“I have seen him doing great for us,” closer Mariano Rivera said. “That is his job and he is capable.”
If the home run flustered Shields it was not evident immediately as he struck out pinch hitter Eric Chavez. Then he allowed a single to Brett Gardner on the slider and threw four straight out of the strike zone to Derek Jeter.
As Shields sat in the dugout with a towel over his head, the Yankees untied it when J.P. Howell fell allowed a two-run double by Robinson Cano over center fielder B.J. Upton’s head.
That turned a terrific performance by Shields into a celebration for the Yankees, who now have a magic number of two to clinch the AL East. That can be achieved with a win tonight and a Boston loss to the Orioles.
“At least we know we’re in, that’s step one,” right fielder Nick Swisher said. “Step Two is let’s go get that division.”
After Mariano Rivera closed out his 603rd career save by retiring Evan Longoria, the celebration on the field was modest. Players shook hands and exchanged some hugs, knowing it was the first step the Yankees hope will conclude by the end of October.
As much as Nunez’s home run was the spark, it would be fair to say that the seven pitchers preceding Rivera would deserve some of the acclaim for the postseason clincher.
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“We’re in the playoffs but we don’t know how,” Rivera said. “We want to win the division.”
“It’s important,” Jeter added. “But we’re playing to win a division.”
Hector Noesi was on a 50-60 pitch limit as he made a spot start for Phil Hughes (back spasms) and allowed just a two-run home run to Desmond Jennings in 2 2/3 innings while throwing 55 pitches.
None of the Yankee big name arms were used until Rivera but Raul Valdes, George Kontos, Aaron Laffey, Cory Wade and Boone Logan combined on 5 1/3 innings and allowed five hits while striking out seven.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.