The Yankees, who remade their starting lineup and were thought to be facing a transitional year, were not expected to be in the hunt for a division title in Game 161 of the regular season. But to this final weekend, they held out hope that they could tie the Red Sox and force a one-game playoff on Monday to decide who would be the A.L. East champion.
That much was clear when Girardi made a last-minute switch at starting pitcher, swapping out Jaime Garcia, who had yet to win a game in eight starts as a Yankee, for C. C. Sabathia, who had won 119 games for the team over nine seasons and had a surprising 13 wins this season.
That move worked as planned. Sabathia gave the Yankees five and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball to complete his regular season with a 14-5 record and a 3.69 earned run average.
Sabathia, who generally objects strenuously when removed from a game, left the mound laughing on Saturday when Girardi came to get him with two out in the sixth and a runner on second.
“He started telling me all these different scenarios,” Sabathia said. “I just told him, ‘You’re the manager, you make the decision.’ That was the first time he ever came up to me and told me what he was thinking.”
Sabathia, whose contract runs out at the end of the season, left the mound to a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 39,457, who may have thought they had seen his last regular-season appearance as a Yankee.
“I never thought about that — we still got the playoffs coming up,” said Sabathia, who is lined up to pitch Game 2 or 3 of the division series, if the Yankees get past the Minnesota Twins in the wild-card game Tuesday in the Bronx. In that matchup, Luis Severino is expected to face the right-hander Ervin Santana.
“I feel pretty confident about where we’re at right now,” Sabathia added.
Another Girardi move worked out as well: using Aaron Judge as the designated hitter instead of in right field, after he appeared to injure himself slightly while running the bases on Friday.
Judge responded with a home run, his 52nd of the season, a shot estimated at 484 feet. It surpassed Babe Ruth’s franchise record of 32 homers at home, a mark set in 1921, when the team was playing at the Polo Grounds as it waited for the original Yankee Stadium to be built.
“We all looked at each other in the dugout and kind of said, ‘Wow,’” Girardi said. “You don’t see that very often. We’ve seen it twice from him this year. And against the wind, too.”
But in the end, nothing could quite overcome the hole the Yankees had dug for themselves in the divisional race from June 12, when they were 15 games over .500 and leading the A.L. East by four games, to Sept. 1, by which time they were five and a half games back. Over that span, they were 33-40, and even their 20-7 record over the rest of September was not enough to catch the Red Sox.
“You can beat yourself up, but that’s not going to help,” Girardi said. “We just got to move forward, and that’s part of baseball. Over 162 games, you’re going to have some games that get away that you don’t think you should and some that you win that you probably shouldn’t. It balances out for the most part.”
So the Yankees face a postseason game they tried so hard to avoid. Judge, for one, does not think the wild card round will be a serious impediment to a long Yankees playoff run.
“The chemistry in this clubhouse is incredible,” he said. “I’ve never played for a team like this. Everyone gets along, we’re always competing, always having fun. That’s what championship teams are made of. I’m excited for what’s going to happen here in the postseason.”