Aaron Boone is loath to overcelebrate any particular victory, let alone a series, but the Yankees weren’t exactly buying into his Zen after their dramatic conquests of the Oakland Athletics this weekend.
The players mobbed Mike Ford at home plate after his game-ending, ninth-inning blast off A’s closer Liam Hendriks lifted the Yankees to a 5-4 victory on Sunday, their second comeback in two days. Afterward, the clubhouse felt and sounded more like a nightclub, with reggaeton music blaring so loud it was impossible to hold a conversation.
The same scene had played out 24 hours earlier, only it was D.J. LeMahieu who had rescued the Yankees, hitting a solo blast over the right-field wall in the 11th inning to give the Yankees a 4-3 win. The A’s learned firsthand what makes the Yankees so dangerous and why any team that steps into the big Stadium in the Bronx does so at its own risk. The Yankees are tied with the Astros for the most home wins in the American League with 51.
“We believe in ourselves until the very end” is how Brett Gardner described the resolve in the dugout. The situation seemed dire — the Yankees were trailing, 4-0, with six outs to go and on the verge of losing their second series to the A’s in a week — but they scored three runs in the eighth before finishing off Hendriks in the ninth. Gardner tied the game at 4-4 with a solo home run, followed by Ford, who stepped to the plate recalling the countless times he’d imagined himself in that high-leverage moment.
“I’ve definitely dreamed about it in the past,” Ford, a left-handed slugger, said. Like so many other Yankees bench players called up in a season littered with injuries, Ford typifies the team’s next-man-up philosophy. Ford, after all, replaced Clint Frazier after the young outfielder was demoted to Class AAA. Frazier had taken Giancarlo Stanton’s place after serious injuries to his shoulder and knee. So when the game-winning situation presented itself to Ford, he was ready.
With the count full, Hendriks unleashed a 98-mile-an-hour, four-seam fastball that Ford pulverized — it easily cleared the wall in right-center, landing in the Yankees’ bullpen. Ford took a moment to gauge the ball’s flight path, even if there was no doubt he’d just won the game. He flipped the bat in the direction of the Yankees’ dugout and began circling the bases, just as in those dreams. Not only was the entire Yankees roster waiting for him at home plate, but so was a water-cooler shower, a rite of passage for those who deliver in the clutch.
Ford, a former star at Princeton, smiled sheepishly and admitted, “This still hasn’t sunk in.” No one was more relieved, though, than Boone, having failed in his gamble to squeeze by with a journeyman reliever in the seventh inning. Working with a depleted bullpen corps, Boone asked Ryan Dull, who had just been claimed off waivers, to hold off the A’s in what was then a scoreless game. Dull brought with him a 12.00 earned run average and 2.55 WHIP in seven outings with the A’s earlier this season. Not surprisingly, Dull’s former teammates jumped on him for three runs in the seventh before they added another run in the eighth off Chance Adams.
Boone explained he was avoiding his exhausted front-line relievers, including Zack Britton, who strained a calf muscle on Saturday. It may have appeared that the Yankees were making a short-term sacrifice to preserve the bullpen’s long-term health, but as Boone, unfazed by the four-run deficit, likes to say, “This is a very confident bunch.”
Even with a seemingly impenetrable 10-game lead over the second-place Tampa Bay Rays, the Yankees are playing with an underlying urgency that has everything to do with October. At stake is finishing with a better record than the Astros, ensuring home-field advantage in the postseason. The same formula applies in the World Series — the Yanked would have to top the Dodgers’ regular-season record — but it’s Houston that occupies the Yankees’ thoughts for now.
In fact, their comeback over the A’s was happening at nearly the same time Justin Verlander was throwing a no-hitter against the Blue Jays. Aaron Judge spoke for the rest of the Yankees team when he said the other day, “If we play the Astros, that’s going to feel like a World Series.”
But getting there might require a return match with the powerful A’s in a division series. That’s why Sunday’s victory was so important, not to mention dramatic. As J.A. Happ put it, “We never feel like we’re out of a game, especially at home.”