NEW YORK (AP)—Bernie Williams sent a drive soaring to left-center field, raised his right arm in triumph and circled the bases.
Pretty soon, he was home—and so were the New York Yankees.
Williams hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning and the Yankees clinched their seventh straight AL East title, beating the playoff-bound Minnesota Twins 6-4 Thursday night for their 100th victory of the season.
“This time of year seems to bring out the best in him,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said.
With the crowd already standing and hollering, Williams connected with one out to set off an enthusiastic celebration.
“I’ve been through it so many times. I was picturing it in the on-deck circle, taking it all in, thinking it would be nice for me to end it,” Williams said.
Williams missed much of spring training following an appendectomy. He struggled at times during the season, and even was benched late in the year for a big game against Boston.
But he was in the lineup for this one, right where his teammates wanted him.
“It was fitting. Bernie’s been here the longest,” Jeter said in the champagne-filled Yankees clubhouse. “He’s been through a lot this year.”
Williams’ homer was the Yankees’ major league-leading 241st of the season, breaking the franchise record set in 1961.
“The things that happened early in the year when we were roughed up by the Red Sox I think galvanized this ballclub,” Torre said.
New York became just the fourth team to post three straight 100-win seasons, joining Atlanta (1997-99), Baltimore (1969-71) and the Philadelphia Athletics (1929-31).
“I am very proud of the team. They’re real warriors,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. “I am very happy with the outcome. Now, let’s get ready for the playoffs.”
The Yankees swept the three-game series from the AL Central champs and very possibly will face the Twins in the first round starting Tuesday at Yankee Stadium. For New York to meet the AL West winner—Anaheim or Oakland— Minnesota would have to sweep Cleveland in its final three games and the weekend series between the Angels and Athletics would have to wind up 2-1 instead of a sweep.
“They’re all good teams,” Torre said. “I’m not sure I could pick out one I’d want to start with.”
Torre had said he hoped to clinch the crown in New York’s final home game, rather than wait to party in Toronto during the weekend. He got his wish in front of a crowd of 48,454 that boosted the Yankees’ home season attendance to a team-record 3,775,292.
“That team over there was on a mission tonight,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “You could see it. Every time they needed a run, they hit a home run. They’ve been struggling all year, and they win 100 games—that’s a joke. We win 90 games, and we think we’re doing great.”
The Yankees won this one as they did so many others, featuring the recurring themes of home runs, strong bullpen work and comebacks. The victory, the 61st in which New York overcame a deficit, relegated Boston to its seventh straight second-place finish, although the Red Sox again captured the wild-card spot.
The Yankees wanted to see a good outing for Javier Vazquez, who began the night with a 7.06 ERA since the All-Star break. He did OK, allowing four runs and seven hits in 6 2-3 innings.
After Olerud homered in the sixth, the Twins retook the lead in the seventh on an RBI double by Henry Blanco that landed on the chalk line, barely beyond third base.
Matsui hit his 31st home run, a solo drive in the seventh that made it 4-all.
Matsui drew a leadoff walk from Radke in the fourth. Williams, Jorge Posada and Olerud all followed with ground singles through the right side, producing two runs.
New York finished 57-24 at home. … Twins reliever Juan Rincon struck out five in two perfect innings. He left after fanning Gary Sheffield to start the ninth. The crowd chanted “MVP! MVP!” throughout Sheffield’s at-bat.