With four games left in the regular season, the New York Yankees have finally secured their 13th consecutive playoff berth. Their chances of winning a 10th straight AL East title, though, appear remote.
New York tries to stay alive in the division race and win the season series with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays when the clubs wrap up their three-game set Thursday night at Tropicana Field.
The Yankees (91-67) scored seven runs in the fifth inning Wednesday night and cruised to a 12-4 victory, avoiding a third straight defeat. They also clinched a playoff spot for the 13th straight season - the longest active streak of postseason appearances in the majors and one shy of Atlanta’s all-time record set from 1991-2005.
It’s the culmination of a remarkable comeback for the Yankees, who opened the season 21-29 but are 70-38 since. They’ve also reached the postseason in all 12 seasons under manager Joe Torre, who is in the final season of his contract and shed tears after Wednesday’s victory.
“Who knows? This could be his last time in,” New York’s Johnny Damon said. “We’re hoping not. You have to savor every moment. Enjoy it. The team we have now, where we came from, being way back, we couldn’t be happier. We have a World Series to win, but this thing is really special.”
However, New York’s deficit to AL East-leading Boston remained three games as the Red Sox defeated Oakland 11-6. Boston’s magic number to clinch the division shrunk to two.
With a playoff spot secure but another division crown unlikely, the Yankees may choose to rest some of their weary veterans. Right fielder Bobby Abreu is likely to get a day off Thursday, and Hideki Matsui sat out Wednesday’s game to rest his sore knees.
“He’s been struggling,” Torre said of Matsui, who is 10-for-74 (.189) in September.
New York, which improved to 9-8 in the season series with the Devil Rays (65-93), is averaging more than 10 runs per game in those nine victories.
Rookie Phil Hughes (4-3, 4.80 ERA) will take the mound for New York in the series finale. Hughes has pitched well in the season’s final month, going 2-0 with a 3.18 ERA in four September starts, although he hasn’t lasted longer than six innings in any of them.
The right-hander did not earn a decision Saturday, when he allowed three runs in five innings of a 12-11, 10-inning loss to Toronto.
Hughes suffered his last loss at home against the Devil Rays on Aug. 31, when he yielded five runs - four earned - seven hits and four walks over 4 1-3 innings of a 9-1 defeat.
He’ll face Devil Rays ace Scott Kazmir (13-9, 3.54), who looks to rebound from his first loss in more than a month. The left-hander gave up three runs - two earned - four hits and four walks in five innings of Friday’s 8-1 loss to Boston. It was Kazmir’s first defeat since Aug. 20, also to the Red Sox, and he had gone 4-0 with a 3.00 ERA over five starts.
Kazmir is 2-3 with a 3.20 ERA in eight career appearances - seven starts - versus the Yankees.
On the bright side for Tampa Bay on Wednesday, Carlos Pena hit a solo home run and had two RBIs. The first baseman increased his season totals and franchise records to 43 homers and 118 driven in.
The Devil Rays close out their season with three games at Toronto after this contest, while the Yankees travel to Baltimore for three games to finish their regular-season schedule.