From his vantage point standing on first base, Nick Swisher turned and glanced toward the right-field wall as Curtis Granderson’s towering fly ball headed into the right field seats. His arm was already raised in anticipation.
Once it landed in the seats, the Yankees were well on their way to a 14-2 victory over the Red Sox and their coveted division title.
Though this was the first of what the Yankees hope is four steps on the way to their 28th World Series title, there was a sense of relief having finally clinched a division they led by 10 games on July 18.
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“It’s always difficult to go out there and win games, especially at the end of the season,” Granderson said. “None of the games are easy. You get a chance to control your own destiny and it’s pretty much a blessing and a curse.”
As the Yankees raced toward attaining their third division title under manager Joe Girardi, they were hounded by the Orioles. Though they maintained a piece of first place for the last 114 days, no more than two games separated the teams for the last 30 days, including a stretch of 21 consecutive days that was the longest in the modern era since 1900.
“Everyone talked about the 10-game lead and how it dwindled down,” Girardi said. “Nobody ever panicked. We just kept working. We kept finding ways to win games. Our guys just never quit.”
The Yankees officially clinched shortly before 10 p.m. when the out-of-town scoreboard showed the Orioles’ game — a 4-1 loss in Tampa Bay — as final. The Yankees were in the middle of adding five runs in the seventh and when the Baltimore score went final, the crowd rose in unison while hugs and handshakes were exchanged in the dugout.
By then it was a forgone conclusion thanks to the performances of Granderson and Robinson Cano. Granderson hit the Yankees’ team-record 245th home run in the seventh while Cano had four hits and drove in six runs, ending the season on a remarkable 24-for-39 run.
“It was a battle,” Cano said. “At the same time, it was fun. You have to give credit to the Orioles the way they played in the last 20 to 25 games.”
The Yankees (95-67) finished with the AL’s best record and won their 18th division title by two games over the Orioles. They avoided the dreaded scenarios of a division tiebreaking game Thursday in Baltimore and a wild-card play-in game Friday at Yankee Stadium.
“It’s a great feeling because it has been a grind,” Girardi said. “It has not been an easy season. You look at some of the injuries that we went through — some of the up and downs — you wouldn’t have felt we won 95 games but we ended up with the best record in the American League. That’s not easy and we have a tough schedule and it’s really rewarding.”
Now they will prepare for the division series, which will begin in Baltimore or Texas on Sunday. The Yankees split 18 games with the Orioles and won four of seven from the two-time AL champion Rangers, who eliminated them in six games in the 2010 ALCS.
“To win in a blowout, we handled it in our own style — Bronx Bombers style. It’s great,” Nick Swisher said.
Hiroki Kuroda, who had struggled of late, pitched well in the biggest regular-season start of his career. He allowed an RBI single to Cody Ross in the first among four hits but little else, getting one ground ball after another en route to his 16th victory.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.