ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—Champagne flowed. Joe Torre cried. The New York Yankees whooped it up.
Celebrating clinching wins never gets old, even when you’ve made the postseason for 13 seasons in a row.
Torre shed tears Wednesday night after the Yankees clinched at least a wild-card berth with a 12-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that capped a comeback from a huge early season deficit.
“Who knows? This could be his last time in,” center fielder 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.”
Elated owner George Steinbrenner even got into the act, making a rare ballpark appearance. He kicked off the celebration when he moved to the front row of his private suite, where he could interact with fans while the Yankees were building a big lead.
The victory, New York’s 15th in 20 games, eliminated defending AL champion Detroit from postseason contention and set up a probable first-round matchup with Cleveland, the Central champion. The Yankees are three games behind Boston with four games left, so New York’s streak of nine consecutive AL East titles is likely to end.
New York, just 21-29 before play on May 30, has gone 70-38 since then. Players, from Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, to Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera, hugged each other on the field and in the dugout following the final out.
“This is what it was about. It was a lot of unselfishness,” Torre said. “There were a lot of guys who played through some injuries, played through some fatigue. And, of course, Alex—we sort of rallied around him.”
The Yankees have made the playoffs every year since 1995, and their streak of 13 consecutive trips is one shy of the record set by the Atlanta Braves from 1991-2005. They’ve made the postseason in all 12 seasons under Torre.
New York was 9 1/2 games back in the wild-card race after play on July 7.
“I’m elated,” 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. … 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.”
The Los Angeles Angels already have clinched the AL West, so all four AL playoff teams were decided before any spot in the NL was clinched.
Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano homered, and the Yankees broke a close game open with a seven-run fifth inning that was still in progress when Steinbrenner moved from a seat near the rear of his suite at Tropicana Field to the front row.
Fans jammed the aisle leading to the box and some stepped over seats to get close enough to snap pictures and speak to the Yankees owner, who lives in nearby Tampa but was not in the house when New York wasted an opportunity to clinch the night before. Steinbrenner left the ballpark after the seventh inning.
“This definitely has been the hardest one,” Jeter said. “We really battled.”
Jeter hit a solo homer off J.P. Howell (1-6) in the fourth and added a sacrifice fly in the fifth to support right-hander Chien-Ming Wang (19-7), who became the first Yankees pitcher with 19 or more victories in consecutive seasons since Tommy John won 21 in 1979 and 22 in 1980.
Cano tied a career-best with five RBIs, including a three-run homer off Howell in the fifth. Jorge Posada drove in three with a two-run single in the fifth and a RBI single in the sixth, when the Yankees scored three times to increase their lead to 12-2.
Jeter escaped from the wild celebration in the Yankees clubhouse and spotted general manager Brian Cashman in a corridor leading to Torre’s office. Cashman pleaded with him to not douse him with champagne, and when Jeter backed off, the GM exclaimed: “That’s why you’re the captain.”
The two then embraced.
“There was a great deal of fight in these guys. We’re Lazurus back from the dead, you know, and we’re real proud of what these guys did,” Cashman said. “This is really a heck of an accomplishment for them to do what they just did. Now we, hopefully, can keep it going. Our dream is still alive.”
Wang, who has won six of his last seven decisions, allowed two runs and seven hits in six innings. He yielded a sacrifice fly and solo home run to Carlos Pena, whose 43 homers and 118 RBIs are season records for the Devil Rays.
Torre met with Steinbrenner and other Yankees officials, including general manager Brian Cashman, over lunch earlier in the day. They discussed a variety of topics, but not the manager’s future.
Torre is in the final year of his contract.
“We don’t talk about it,” Torre said. “We just talked about team, basically. They wanted to get a feel on what Brian and I thought about the guys we’re going forward with.”
Rodriguez was ready to celebrate.
“We’ve come from a long ways this year and a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries. This team has a lot to be proud of,” he said. “Anything is possible. This team has been through so much. So many people counted us out early.”
Pena’s fifth-inning homer was the first allowed by a Yankees starter since Sept. 5, a stretch of 110 innings. … Jorge Cantu held the previous Devil Rays record for RBIs in a season, 117 in 2005.