Yankees clinch 16th playoff trip in 17 years
NEW YORK (AP) — As the final out fell into Curtis Granderson's glove, the Yankees walked calmly to the mound to congratulate Mariano Rivera.
No leaping. No screaming. No bubbly.
Playoff berths have become so commonplace in the Bronx — 16 in 17 years — they're no longer cause for celebration.
"We still feel as though we didn't accomplish anything yet," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said after New York rallied past Tampa Bay 4-2 Wednesday and handed the Rays a damaging defeat in the opener of a day-night doubleheader. "I mean, we're happy to be in the playoffs, but people aren't running around here jumping up and down because we clinched a postseason berth. Our goal is to win the division."
Eduardo Nunez hit a tying home run in the eighth inning against All-Star James Shields, and Robinson Cano followed with a two-run double off J.P. Howell to clinch the Yankees' spot.
Despite using a makeshift lineup, New York clinched no worse than a wild-card berth and lowered the magic number to two for its 12th AL East title in 16 seasons.
"It's not time to celebrate just yet," Nick Swisher said, explaining the Yankees' reserved approach. "It's crazy, though. I'm sure a lot of other teams would not be doing that."
Five World Series titles and seven American League pennants since 1996 for Jeter, Rivera and Jorge Posada have numbed the Yankees and their fans to preliminary achievements.
"It's the first step of three that you want, to me, to accomplish in the regular season. First one is to get in. Second one is to win your division, and the third one is to have homefield advantage throughout," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Since I've been here, I know that there's been an expectation for this club to win every year, and that starts from the top. That started from Mr. Steinbrenner, and it hasn't changed one bit."
In the rain-delayed second game, the Yankees' CC Sabathia (19-8) was to make his third try for his 20th win. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson (13-10) was to start for the Rays, who led 2-1 in the eighth only to be stunned by the quick turnabout. Tampa Bay began the day trailing Boston by two games for the AL wild-card spot; the Red Sox hosted Baltimore at night.
"It's not good, but we have another game to play in a couple minutes, so you can't really worry about it too long," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Alex Rodriguez hit an RBI double in the first, but that was all the Yankees got off Shields (15-12) until the eighth. Desmond Jennings put the Rays ahead 2-1 with a two-run homer in the second inning off emergency starter Hector Noesi.
Nunez then hooked an 82 mph pitch into the first row of the left-field seats leading off the eighth. Brett Gardner singled with one out, Jeter walked, and that was it for Shields.
Left-hander J.P. Howell relieved and fell behind 3-1, and Cano lined an opposite-field drive into the gap in left-center. In the dugout, Shields briefly put a towel over his head, unable to watch.
"Right now, it's crucial times, and we've got to win ballgames," Shields said. "I didn't get the job done."
Ominously, Yankees scheduled starter Phil Hughes was scratched and had an injection of painkiller in his back. General manager Brian Cashman anticipates Hughes will return to the mound next week during the final series of the regular season.
While other teams try to reach for the postseason, the Yankees prepare for it as a birthright.
"We're playing for a lot bigger than just getting in," Cashman said. "We want to be the last team standing."
Given his first big league start Noesi allowed two runs and four hits in 2 2-3 innings. The uniform numbers of the Yankees' opening battery totaled 135 — Noesi (64) and rookie catcher Austin Romine (71).
Luis Ayala (2-2), the seventh of eight Yankees pitchers, relieved with two on and two outs in the eighth and struck out his only two batters. Two days after setting the career saves record, Rivera was given a standing ovation when he entered. He closed it out 1-2-3 for his 44th save this season and the 603rd of his career, two more than Trevor Hoffman's old mark.
Rivera appreciated this playoff berth as much as the first one. He said players felt the Yankees were overlooked when predictions were made during spring training.
"Nobody gave us a shot," Rivera said. "Here we are."
In the quiet clubhouse, there wasn't even a sign or a sound of a party going on in the inner sanctum back by the showers, where only the team is allowed.
Jeter, as usual, found a practical reason for not getting too worked up.
"We're going to spray champagne and then play the second game?" he said.
NOTES: No team had clinched a playoff berth in a doubleheader opener since the 1999 Red Sox, who chose to wait until after the nightcap to celebrate. ... Swisher let go of the bat while swinging at strike three in the first inning, and the bat hit the side of Posada, who was standing 20 feet toward home plate from the on-deck circle. Posada, making his ninth appearance this year at first base, stayed in the game. ... Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Russell Martin were given the afternoon off from New York's starting lineup in the opener; Jeter, Rodriguez and Swisher didn't start the nightcap. ... The Yankees are a big league-best 42-12 in day games. ... Rivera has converted 60 of 61 save chances against the Rays.