Whatever else you can say, the Yankees battled to the end with faint playoff hopes. Having beaten Toronto 3-2 in the series opener last Thursday, it handled the Blue Jays again, 5-3, a night later. Toronto scored twice in the top of the first inning, but as Hiroki Kuroda settled down in his 6 2/3 inning stint, only allowing a run in the third, the Yankees got a run in the first and went in front with Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-run home run in the bottom of the third. And as it turned out, the two runs it got in the fourth inning off a botched force play on Ellsbury’s grounder, Stephen Drew and Chase Headley scoring the runs, made the difference. Yankee relievers, including David Robertson, tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings to preserve that lead.
Contenders were stumbling, so the Yankees could make up ground if it won again Saturday against Toronto. But it could not do so, the Blue Jays prevailing 6-3 to push New York closer to the brink of elimination. When Brian McCann and Francisco Cervelli had run-scoring hits in the fourth inning, the Yankees led 2-1, but Toronto countered with three runs in the sixth, two of them coming home on Danny Valencia’s double. Jose Bautista homered in the seventh and the Blue Jays added another run in the ninth to make it 6-2. It got nervous for Toronto as Derek Jeter (of course) drove in a run and the Yankees got the tying run to the plate, but Chris Young lined out and Toronto held on for the victory.
That series with the Toronto Blue Jays ended on Sunday afternoon, and it brought back Masahiro Tanaka from his three-month elbow injury exile. Like clockwork, Tanaka won again, the Yankees taking out the Blue Jays 5-2 as the early-season ace went 5 1/3 innings, striking out four. When he left, the game was still 2-1 in the Yankees’ favor (solo home runs by Brian McCann and Brett Gardner), but New York got away with three runs in the bottom of the seventh and Derek Jeter launched it a double, with McCann following by getting another home run, this one a two-run shot. Jeter picked up two hits in each of the four games in the homestand, making his last series count and, at least, keeping the Yankees alive until the final week of the regular season.
Against a Baltimore Orioles team that had already wrapped up the AL East and really had nothing else to play for, the Yankees kept itself breathing in the playoff picture by blanking the Orioles 5-0. Part of the story was Michael Pineda absolutely shutting down the Baltimore lineup, allowing just one hit in 7 1/3 innings on the mound, striking out eight. The other story was Derek Jeter continuing to make his last homestand count as much as possible, driving in one run with a groundout in the third inning and then hitting a two-run double in the bottom of the fifth. That made it nine hits in five games as, once again, the Captain is seizing the spotlight that has always shown on him during his 19 seasons in pinstripes.
Even with the wins, the Yankees were inching closer to elimination because the teams in front of the wild card race (Oakland, Kansas City) were not retreating. And New York went to the brink Tuesday night when Baltimore defeated them 5-4. Helped in part by Nelson Cruz’s 40th home run of the season, Baltimore built a 5-1 lead in the game’s early stages. The Yankees roared back with a run in the sixth and then got within one in the seventh inning when Derek Jeter beat out an infield hit and Brian McCann hit a two-run home run. It was still that way in the bottom of the ninth when, as if scripted, Jeter came up with the tying run on base with two outs. But Jeter struck out, and one more loss would mean elimination.
Now having to win against Baltimore Wednesday afternoon, the Yankees could not do so and, with a 9-5 defeat, were officially knocked out of post-season contention for the second straight year. Staked to a 3-0 lead through three innings, partially on home runs by Stephen Drew and Chase Headley, Shane Greene could not hold on to it, knocked out as the Orioles batted around in the top of the fourth and scored six times, launched by two-run hits from Ryan Flaherty and Nick Markakis. Eventually, the deficit grows to 9-3 before Mark Teixeira blasts an eighth-inning home runs, but it proves to be in vain. It took until game 158 for the Yankees, despite all the injury woes and lack of run production, to see its championship dreams end.
And this meant that Thursday night’s game against Baltimore would, indeed, be Derek Jeter’s last at Yankee Stadium. And it went exactly like a movie script. Jeter doubled in the first inning and then scored. With the game tied 2-2 in the seventh, he reached on an error, part of a three-run rally that had New York up 5-2 on Baltimore. Then, almost as if to set up the ending, Adam Jones and Steve Pearce hit home runs in the top of the ninth off David Robertson that, combined, tied the game 5-5, just so that Jeter could step up in the bottom of the ninth and drive home the winning run. Jeter took a long time to leave the field, emotional, and announced that it was his last game at shortstop. He picked a pretty good way for it to end.
It is so strange that the Yankees’ season will come to an end with three games against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. For 19 consecutive seasons, one or the other, and often times both of them, would be in the playoffs. Now that won’t be the case, for the first time since 1993, the last year of the four-division format before they went to six divisions. These are also expected to be the last games of Derek Jeter, too, with one more ceremony, one more set of standing ovations and plenty of blanket coverage – even if Jeter is only acting as a DH in those games, something that Mariano Rivera did not do in Houston last year at season’s end after his last game in the Bronx and the Yankees were eliminated.
So what to make of this Yankees’ season, as a whole? In short, New York didn’t score enough runs, but even if it had, would it really have mattered? Everything was derailed by the injuries to the pitching staff. The starting rotation was supposed to feature CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda. Only Kuroda got through the season unscathed. Sabathia was lost for the season early with knee trouble. So was Nova with Tommy John surgery. Tanaka, who was on a Cy Young pace in the first half, missed nearly three months with his elbow trouble and Pineda missed four months. With all that, Joe Girardi, armed with a solid bullpen, kept his Yankees in the post-season chase until the last week of the season.
In order to hang in there, Yankees GM Brian Cashman made a laundry list of personnel changes and trades, and they worked – to a point. Brandon McCarthy did help patch up the pitching rotation. Martin Prado, Chase Headley and Stephen Drew also made reasonable contributions, though they did little to really prop up a lineup that never hit with consistency. Had Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner and Carlos Beltran all been present and consistent, would things have been different? In short, it made for a melancholy final season for Derek Jeter, and left plenty of questions as to just what kind of organization the Yankees will have without those that were their stalwarts for so long. What will it take for the pinstripes to find greatness again?