In 1996, second baseman Mariano Duncan famously came up with the slogan “We play today, we win today.” Duncan’s catchy saying has never been more appropriate for the Yankees than it will be Wednesday night in what they hope will be their regular season finale.
Down to their last three outs, the Yankees retained a one-game lead in the AL East as pinch hitter Raul Ibanez hit a two-run home run with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth inning and eventually pulled out a thrilling 4-3 victory over the Red Sox on Ibanez’s single into short left field with two outs in the 12th.
When Francisco Cervelli scored the winning run, it ensured the Yankees would keep the one-game lead they attained with Monday’s 10-2 rout. If they win, the division is theirs for the 18th time and they will avoid the dreaded scenarios of a one-game divisional playoff in Baltimore Thursday afternoon or a one-game, wild-card play-in game Friday.
“I think it’s extremely important because you want to be able to do that,” manager Joe Girardi said. “If we win, we win the division; that’s the bottom line. We have a chance to have the best record and that’s the bottom line. That’s a good feeling that you can control that.”
“It was awesome,” Ibanez said. “It was awesome to be a part of and contribute, especially this time of year.”
Leading up to the events that spurred the latest version of the biggest win of the season, were a confounding eight innings of unproductive at-bats. The Yankees had 11 hits but scored just once, killing rallies with two double plays while a pinch runner was caught stealing to end the eighth.
“Just keep trying to put them up there and somehow find a way and that’s what our guys did today,” Girardi said. “I didn’t sense frustration. I sensed they were business as usual, keep giving yourself opportunities and obviously there’s a lot of excitement when Raul’s ball goes out and there’s even more excitement when his ball goes through.”
When it was over nobody was more thankful for Ibanez’s 11th career game-ending hit and fourth career pinch-hit home run than Mark Teixeira. In his second game since returning from a calf injury, Teixeira hit into two double plays while going hitless in six at-bats.
“It’s very frustrating, but I’m the happiest guy on the team right now,” Teixeira said. “I guarantee you that I’m the happiest guy because it could not have gone worse for me personally, but we won. I told Raul, thank you about 100 times.”
The comeback started nearly 30 minutes after Jim Johnson closed out a 1-0 Baltimore victory in Tampa Bay.
It started with Curtis Granderson lining a single to right field off Andrew Bailey. It continued with Ibanez reprising his role from the Sept. 22 epic against Oakland by hitting a two-run home run over the right-field wall.
“I know that I hit it on the barrel,” Ibanez said. “I thought I had a chance but it’s happening in slow motion. You hit it and you see the ball take off and it’s all kind of happening in slow motion.”
The rally stayed alive when Jeter lined a double to the right-field corner. Two batters later, they were loaded for Teixeira, who up to that point had bounced into two double plays.
The rally stalled when Teixeira flied out to shallow center field and Robinson Cano weakly grounded out. That meant fans got to see Rafael Soriano pitch two innings for the first time since June 19, 2010.
Derek Lowe followed with two scoreless innings for the win. Girardi said Ivan Nova would have been next had the game continued.
The winning rally finally came in the 12th off Andrew Miller with two outs as Cervelli and Granderson drew walks. Two pitches later, it ended with Ibanez slapping a single into short left field just past the range of shortstop Jose Iglesias.
“You’re trying not to do too much,” Ibanez said. “I got two nasty pitches and just found a hole.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.