Yanks clinch 13th straight playoff berth
Seven-run fifth against Rays helps secure October appearance
ST. PETERSBURG -- Celebrate! The Yankees popped the corks and sprayed some bubbly on Wednesday, clinching their 13th consecutive postseason appearance with a 12-4 victory over the Devil Rays at Tropicana Field.
The blowout win finalized a memorable climb out of the depths of desperation. New York sat a season-low eight games under .500 on May 29 but morphed into the best team in the Major Leagues after that point, leading all clubs in wins and winning percentage to rally back into contention.
Yankees manager Joe Torre could not contain his emotion in addressing the players on his roster, who credited him for helping the team escape its early malaise. Probable American League Most Valuable Player Alex Rodriguez said that Torre was the reason the Yankees were dousing each other with expensive green bottles, and captain Derek Jeter wondered if 2007 will ultimately prove to be Torre's finest season at the helm.
"I couldn't get anything out," Torre said, choking back tears while clutching a half-full glass of champagne. "I was too emotional. I just told them basically that it means a lot to me. This is what I told them: 'I was very proud.'"
Looking on from a private suite at Tropicana Field, principal owner George Steinbrenner inched forward as Greg Norton's ninth-inning popup soared toward the roof then settled into Robinson Cano's glove as the Yankees rushed to the center of the diamond, pumping fists, hugging and exchanging high-fives.
"I'm elated we have clinched the playoff spot," Steinbrenner said in a statement. "After a tough first half of the season when everyone seemed to lose faith except for our players and our fans, the team has really stepped up and shown themselves to be the champions that they are. With hard work and determination, we were able to clinch a playoff position and are now heading into our 13th consecutive postseason.
"I congratulate our players, Joe Torre and Brian Cashman. I really like the mix of veterans and younger players who have contributed to this comeback. It has been exciting to watch them play, coalesce and pull together. The fans and I look forward to the team accomplishing our ultimate goal -- bringing a world championship back to New York."
For great periods of the season, the Yankees' savior was Rodriguez, who carried the roster for weeks at a time with his potent bat -- part of the reason he was cornered by a group of teammates on Wednesday, his eyes blinded by spray as chants of "Superhero!" echoed in his ears.
But Rodriguez said the season was about much more than just one person. Chasing from Day 1, the Yankees needed contributions and energy from all corners to pull off a miraculous turnaround. Between swigs from a bottle, A-Rod grinned and admitted he wasn't sure it could happen.
"I had my doubts," Rodriguez said. "I didn't think we would be here, honestly. It's weird to say that, but I had my doubts."
He wasn't alone.
"Two months into the season, you're thinking, 'My goodness, what is this?'" Andy Pettitte said. "This wasn't what it was supposed to be about. You can't allow yourself to be there. You've got to come in with a positive attitude and continue to press forward."
The turnaround seemed to come in late May, when the club called a closed-door players-only meeting in the visitors' clubhouse at Rogers Centre in Toronto to air out grievances. Rattled and renewed, the Yankees emerged as a club on a mission, recently closing to within 1 1/2 games of the Red Sox in the AL East before settling three games back with four to play.
"You play it for a reason," Jeter said. "You don't play it on paper, regardless of how you start off. The guys here deserve a lot of credit."
Their magic number to secure at least the AL Wild Card residing at one entering play on Wednesday, the Yankees confirmed their October attendance by pulling away over the downtrodden Rays with two runs in the fourth inning and a seven-run fifth in which 11 batters came to the plate.
Jeter homered to lead off the fourth inning and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead with a sacrifice fly in the fifth, before New York changed the course of the game on three consecutive pitches by Rays starter J.P. Howell, who allowed nine runs (eight earned) in 4 2/3 innings.
One of Howell's pitches hit Rodriguez in the left elbow, the next was smacked by Jorge Posada for a two-run single and Robinson Cano sent the next over the right-field wall for a three-run homer, part of a five-RBI night for the New York second baseman.
"Energy tonight! Energy tonight!" Cano shouted, racing through a room walled by protective plastic coating and smelling strongly of spilled alcohol.
For years, the Yankees' only focus had been on securing the division, but their goals seemed to be altered this season as a result of a devastatingly slow start. With Torre saying that he felt like the April and May Yankees "won the lottery" every time they actually won a game, the club fell a season-high 14 1/2 games behind the Red Sox before making a valiant charge back.
Still, they seem to have accepted the idea that their string of ownership on the AL East will end in 2007. The Red Sox may indeed win out in the regular season, but as history has proven, October is a whole new month.
"People talk about the division, they talk about the Wild Card," Jeter said. "We wanted to play every day. We weren't concerned about what we were going for. You use the Wild Card as a crutch. This year, right now, we have to use that crutch."
Torre said he was satisfied that the club's primary goal of reaching the postseason had been accomplished. Some Yankees teams have been reluctant to celebrate at this early stage in past seasons, believing that there is more work ahead. But to come back from where this team did, Torre said, "I always knew we were going to celebrate this."
Playing in front of a largely pro-Yankees crowd of 21,621, New York provided more than enough run support to pave Chien-Ming Wang's path to a 19th victory. The right-hander twirled six innings and scattered seven hits, allowing a first-inning run and Carlos Pena's 43rd homer -- a solo shot in the fifth -- but little else.
Wang walked three and struck out six before yielding to Joba Chamberlain for the seventh inning, a preview of things to come. With the Yankees' playoff entry secured, Torre warned Chamberlain to "get some rest" and not celebrate too much on Wednesday.
The club now prepares for its postseason, in part, by amping up the experiment on its 22-year-old setup phenom, who is expected to pitch in back-to-back games for the first time on Thursday. With one more game in St. Petersburg and three in Baltimore, finalizing the staff has become the Yankees' new No. 1 priority.
"We're good," Torre said. "We need to pitch. I think everybody in the postseason knows how important pitching is, and luck, especially in that first go-round, with five games. As far as what we've gone through this year as far as the pressure, hopefully, we get a good result."
The visitors added three more runs in the sixth to put the game well out of reach and make sure the drinks were plenty cold, with Doug Mientkiewicz stroking one of his four hits -- tying a career high -- for an RBI.
For Mientkiewicz, a first-year Yankee who has watched New York's playoff dynasty extend season after season from afar, the miraculous comeback was little more than business as usual. The Yankees have qualified for postseason play in every season of the Torre era and have not missed the playoffs since the strike-shortened 1994 campaign.
"I know as an opponent playing against them, it seems like every year, something happens early and everyone writes them off," Mientkiewicz said. "They want to jump on the bandwagon and [say], 'This is the first year the Yankees aren't going to make it.' Then you look up Oct. 1, and who's got the 8 o'clock FOX game? The Yankees."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.