The Baltimore Orioles (88-66) finally blinked, splitting their doubleheader with the Toronto Blue Jays Monday, while the New York Yankees (89-64) slugged four home runs and got six shutout innings from Andy Pettitte in a 6-3 win over the Minnesota Twins.
For the first time since play ended Sunday, Sept. 2, the Yankees and Orioles are separated by more than one game. With nine left to play, New York's 1 1/2-game AL East lead seems that much larger because it, at least temporarily, mitigates the dreadful prospect of possibly having to play in the inaugural Wild Card Showdown.
What separated these two clubs over the last seven games was Pettitte (5-3, 2.71 ERA). During the Yankees' 6-1 stretch, Pettitte, who in the first inning Monday escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam by striking out Justin Morneau and getting Ryan Doumit to ground out, won two games in as many starts and pitched to a zero ERA. The left-hander has thrown 11 shutout innings since returning last Wednesday from a fractured left ankle that forced him to miss more than 2 1/2 months of the season.
Baltimore, 5-2 in its last seven games, provided the Yankees an opportunity to increase their lead (albeit slightly) by losing two of its last three. After the Orioles' next two contests with Toronto, they play a three-game weekend series at home vs. the fourth-place Boston Red Sox.
The Orioles are 10-5 vs. Boston this season, but a slip-up this weekend could cost them a division title. And let's not forget how much the Red Sox would like to achieve some measure of revenge for the Orioles effectively ending their season at Camden Yards a year ago. Baltimore went 5-2 vs. Boston last September, famously acquiring the fifth of those victories on Robert Andino's walk-off RBI single in the 2011 regular season finale.
Pettitte rejoined the Yankees just as they were heating up, so the timing was perfect. It also doesn't hurt that Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez have been swinging hot bats lately, but the certainty Pettitte's ability to thrive in high-pressure situations offers has boosted team morale. You could sense that in the clubhouse during the Bombers' last homestand.
It's as though the healing of Pettitte's left ankle--confirmed by two setback-free starts--mirrors the restoration of the Yankees' confidence, which was dealt a huge blow when they went 22-28 between July 19 and Sept. 11. They've won 10 of 12 since, and getting Pettitte back has clearly given them a much-needed edge in what's been an extremely tight pennant race all month.
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