NEW YORK -- The A's needed this win, even if they don't want to admit it.
Manager Bob Melvin has constantly stressed that every game carries a profound meaning, but Sunday's circumstances meant something more. The A's came into their series finale against New York needing a positive result to even out the scales after two demoralizing losses.
Oakland had dropped two straight games in extra innings, and Saturday's loss was especially galling because the A's took a four-run lead in the 13th inning and then lost. Sunday represented redemption and a chance to gain some momentum heading into a series with first-place Texas.
How did the A's respond? Oakland took an early lead and overcame a Yankees comeback in the middle innings. The action was close all the way to the end, and the A's -- backed by a standout game from Cliff Pennington -- went on to take a 5-4 win and a momentary reprieve from pressure.
"A couple of dramatic games certainly make the next game seem like it's a little more important," said Melvin. "We had the same situation in Detroit. It seemed like we lost the first couple then came back to win the last game. But rarely do you lose games like you did last night. Coming back from something like that and scoring early in the game showed some fight right away.
"It was a big game. Each and every game will be big, but probably at this point in time of the year, that was our biggest win."
The A's went into Sunday's series finale holding the second American League Wild Card spot and controlling their own postseason destiny. But they had also lost five of their last six games, and a meeting with the first-place Rangers loomed on the horizon.
Pennington proved to be the difference by notching a two-run home run in the second inning and coming back later to score the tying run in the fifth and drive home the go-ahead run. Pennington singled in a run in the sixth inning, and the A's never trailed for the rest of the game.
"Losing two games in extra innings is tough. Especially when those games mean so much," said Pennington. "Today's game was really still just another game, but at the same time it was definitely a big one. We needed to get out of here with this one to get some momentum going into Texas."
Oakland (86-66) took control early on Sunday, using a wild pitch to score in the first inning and Pennington's homer over the right-field fence in the second to notch a 3-0 lead. But the Yankees (88-64) battled back, notching four runs in the fourth inning against Oakland rookie A.J. Griffin.
Nick Swisher accounted for two of those runs with a homer to right field, and Raul Ibanez doubled in a run later in the fourth. New York's final run scored on a groundout to second base. Griffin pitched into the fifth inning, but he left with two men on base and his team trailing by a run.
"He just ran into a little bit of a tough spot," said Melvin. "They're always going to work the count and get the pitch count up, foul some balls off like they did for him. We're a little reluctant to let these guys go more than 105 pitches, so at that point in time they just worked him a little to get him out of the game."
Pennington singled against Hiroki Kuroda in the fifth inning, then he moved to second base on a walk and to third on a wild pitch before scoring the tying run on a single by Yoenis Cespedes. Pennington came up big again in the sixth, when he singled home Josh Donaldson with two outs.
But with the memory of Saturday's game fresh in their minds, a one-run lead wouldn't seem safe. And sure enough, the ninth inning brought drama in the form of a long fly ball from Alex Rodriguez that lingered in the air and finally came down in Josh Reddick's glove on the warning track.
Closer Grant Balfour -- who has now successfully converted 13 straight save opportunities -- crouched on the grass as he watched the ball fly toward the right-field fence. He wasn't able to relax until Reddick did a little hop in front of the wall and caught the ball cleanly.
"The way things went for us in this series, you never know," said Balfour. "I knew he didn't get it good. But I [also] knew that he's strong enough. He doesn't have to hit a ball perfect to get it out. Especially down that right-field line. It's got to be one of the shortest porches in the game."
The A's are 2 1/2 games up on the Angels, their closest competitor for the last Wild Card, and seven of their remaining 10 games will be against Texas, the leaders in the AL West. Oakland can catch the Rangers, but it will take some focus and some luck.
"We played tough," said Balfour of the series. "As much as we only won one out of three here, I honestly felt we could've won all the games here. We honestly do, and we feel good about that. It didn't work out, and there's a couple things here and there that we did wrong, and it cost us the games.
"But I don't think we can hang our heads too low. It could've easily been the other way around and we'd be sitting here with a different story. We've got a good lead and we've got to keep playing like that. We can't play with our backs to the wall. We've got to play free-and-easy baseball and enjoy it."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.