If you wanted to see the AL pennant race version of a heavyweight prizefight, then here’s hoping you found yourselves glued to the television set for the nearly six hours it took the Yankees and Athletics to decide their 151st game of the regular season Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
In the latest installment of the biggest game of the season in the Bronx, the final knockout blow was delivered by Eduardo Nunez, whose ground ball with two outs in the bottom of the 14th inning deflected off first baseman Brandon Moss’s glove and scored Ichiro Suzuki, giving the Yankees an improbable 10-9 victory over the Athletics.
“It’s very fun,” Nunez said after ending the five-hour, 43-minute thriller. “It’s nice. I never had a walk-off in my life.”
Leading up to the final events was a four-run comeback in the 13th, highlighted by Raul Ibanez’s two-run home run. When Ichiro scored the winning run after rookie pinch runner Melky Mesa missed third and went back, it marked the second time the Yankees won when trailing by four runs in extra innings and the first time since Sept. 17, 1980 against Toronto.
“That was a fun game, especially because we won,” Ibanez said. “But it was a fun game and obviously a big win for us.”
“It’s an unbelievable comeback by our guys to put some good at-bats [together],” manager Joe Girardi said. “Just one hitter at a time, put a good at-bat together, tie it up and to be able to win it in the 14th, it’s remarkable.”
Depending on your viewpoint, the final innings were hitting at its finest or relief pitching at its worst. But the events of the 13th that led to the Yankees winning their seventh straight and 12th in 16 games can be considered among the more memorable of a riveting September that has turned the final weeks of the regular season into a series of dramatic one-game playoffs for the Yankees, Orioles and Athletics.
“I’m sure it’s happened before,” Girardi said. “They’re playing extremely well. We’re playing extremely well and we made the most of opportunities today and they must have done the same thing and it’s exciting for baseball.”
Oakland struck first with a series of power punches or home runs, clubbing two off Freddy Garcia and one off Justin Thomas. Jonny Gomes provided what was believed to be the original knockout with a two-run shot to left and rookie Yoenis Cespedes provided another blow with a solo shot before Chris Carter added one for emphasis.
“Nobody was happy,” Ichiro said. “But at the same time, I think there was nobody giving up. It was tough at that point but nobody was giving up.”
Nobody knew it at the time, as portions of the crowd headed toward dinner plans, but those with rooting interests that remained were in for a treat that featured a series of combination punches that got the Yankees off the mat from a disappointing loss.
It started with singles by Ichiro, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano almost in rapid succession. It continued with a passed ball and a sacrifice fly.
“The tendency late in the game is as players we sometimes try to do too much,” Ibanez said. “That’s why stringing together a bunch of hits was good. It worked out for us.”
Five pitches later, Ibanez delivered the latest knockout, equaling Carter’s blast with a two-run shot well over the right-field fence into the second deck off reliever Pat Neshek. It was Ibanez’s 16th career multi-home run game and his first homer in the 13th or later.
“I can’t say enough of about what he did,” Girardi said. “Tying up the game in the 13th and the solo shot earlier, Raul plays hard. Raul’s a big bat for us and it’s good to see him get going again.”
“I think we had the guy at the plate we wanted in Ibanez,” Steve Pearce said. “I think everybody knew he was going to do something special.”
Ibanez also became the first Yankee to enter a game as a pinch hitter and hit two home runs since Steve Balboni on May 23, 1990 in Minnesota. Balboni achieved it in a 12-0 rout while Ibanez’s feat occurred in a much more important game.
“When guys came in there were a lot of guys yelling ‘Let’s go, let’s go, one at-bat at a time,” Girardi said. “Everyone was kind of caught up in it, not so much that we had given up four. Thinking about it I’ve always said this group has been pretty good about bouncing back and I figured this group would have bounced back again, but would it have felt like more, maybe.”
“That’s fun, you’re going to have to continue to grind,” Joba Chamberlain said. “There’s a big chunk of the season left. Everybody think it’s a few games but there’s a lot that can happen in that short amount of time. Everybody’s focused. Everybody’s locked in and we just continue to have fun. It’s awesome to see this game, be able to see these guys, 38, 39 and 40 years old, running hard into second and making those plays. Just the passion and fun that these guys play with is awesome to see.”
Besides Ibanez and Nunez, there were others who contributed to eighth one-run victory in the last 13 games.
Leading up to the final two innings, the game featured Pearce making a diving stop on Josh Reddick’s line drive to end a bases-loaded jam for Garcia in the 11th. Earlier Chamberlain retired the side in the ninth and Cody Eppley left the bases loaded in the eighth by getting Cespedes.
“It’s a long day. You’re standing at that rail for five or six hours and it’s exhausting,” Girardi said. “Not as exhausting if I’m a player, but it gets exhausting. But I’ll be refreshed by the morning.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.