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09/22/11 1:14 AM ET

Yankees savor winning crown in tough AL East

NEW YORK -- The American League East race officially came to an early end with a checked-swing third strike on Wednesday, as the Yankees rushed their home diamond and put the exclamation marks on their 17th division title.

Jorge Posada delivered the winning blow to highlight the toughest season of his fine career, a pinch-hit two-run single in the eighth inning, helping secure a 4-2 victory over the Rays in the second game of a day-night doubleheader.

"The year is not over, so hopefully we can continue this ride," Posada said, his eyes misty after being blasted with Lunetta sparkling wine. "We've been able to survive and stay in there.

"A lot of people wrote us off, and in here, we never gave up. We were never second-guessing ourselves."

As Mark Teixeira said, if the Yankees could ever be considered underdogs, this was the year. The Red Sox were the darlings of the Hot Stove League and the Rays' pitching staff drew stud accolades, leaving the Yankees ranked as early runner-ups.

"It's pretty sweet, because we came into the season and a lot of people said we were the second or third-best team in the division," Teixeira said. "We didn't need to prove anything to ourselves, but it's nice to prove it to the world that you can never count us out."

The Yankees' 12th division title in the last 16 years (since 1996) sets up to have New York likely facing off against either the Detroit Tigers or the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series.

But that won't kick off until Sept. 30, and with more than a week to rest weary bodies, the Yankees sported soggy T-shirts and caps trumpeting their achievement on Wednesday. They seemed in no hurry to speed up what had been a long, productive day at the office.

"It means a lot. It's a long road to get to this point," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "There were a lot of great times and there were some difficult times that we went through.

"But the one thing about this group is we've been resilient all year. It means a lot to this club, to this organization, what these guys have done."

New York's victory, coupled with yet another loss by the slipping Red Sox to the Orioles at Fenway Park, permitted the plastic covering to be hung for the third straight year at the new Yankee Stadium -- thus far, an annual rite in the facility.

Well aware of the implications, a crowd of 45,586 cheered when the final score of Boston's game was posted on the center-field scoreboard, and most roared even louder when Posada was called out of the dugout.

All erupted when the 40-year-old Posada -- the fire of the Core Four turned Key Three, yesterday's everyday catcher, today's sometimes-designated hitter -- delivered what Teixeira called "the biggest hit of the year" off Brandon Gomes.

"The fans have been very supportive my whole career, especially this year," Posada said. "I really have to thank them. They have been for me the whole year this year. It's been tough. [The hit] felt real good."

With seven games remaining to prepare for their ALDS matchup, Girardi said that he needs to keep the accelerator depressed to push for the league's best home record. That will create a balancing act.

These veteran Yankees also could use a break, considering a rough, weather-impacted September schedule that wiped out all but one of their off-days of the month -- one that they spent flying from Seattle to Toronto last Thursday.

"We're in," general manager Brian Cashman said. "We'd like to be all-in, which is to have the division and best record, but we won't do it at the expense of our players. It's just like last year."

Alex Rodriguez said that it is crucial to get the team healthy and sharp by the beginning of the playoffs.

"Obviously it's a game of momentum, a game of health," Rodriguez said. "You want to have a pitcher or two that are really hot, and I think right now we're playing good baseball."

The given is that Girardi will tab ace CC Sabathia, who delivered 127 pitches on Wednesday but still came up a late hit shy of his 20th win, to start Game 1 of the ALDS.

Girardi said he will confer with pitching coach Larry Rothschild on how to handle Sabathia's final regular-season start, which could come as a tune-up on Sunday against the Red Sox or on Monday against the Rays in St. Petersburg.

That's the easier part, as they also need to figure out where 16-game winner Ivan Nova slots in, also considering Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett's places on the roster.

"I don't think we're at that point now," Nick Swisher said. "We're all just really trying to enjoy this moment now, soak it up for all it's worth, because AL East champs, man -- that's saying something."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.