With Phil Hughes a late scratch, Hector Noesi pitched admirably in his first career MLB start, throwing 2 2/3 innings of two-run pitch-limited ball, making one mistake to Desmond Jennings, who clubbed a go-ahead two-run home run in the third after the Yankees had taken a surprising 1-0 lead in the first against James Shields.
Thanks to a herculean effort from the bullpen the Rays wouldn’t score again, as seven Yankee relievers combined for 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball. The ‘pen worked hard for this one, allowing eight baserunners but wiggling out of trouble, with the only clean frame coming in the ninth, courtesy of Mariano Rivera and his 603rd save, preserving the Yankees’ 4-2 come-from-behind victory.
Following the first-inning run, Shields settled down and dispatched of the Yankees in much the same way he’s done all season, and looked well on his way to yet another dominant outing. However, things came apart in the 8th for Shields — who ended up throwing 120 pitches — as Eduardo Nunez(!) led the inning off with a game-tying home run. At .279 WPA, it was the biggest hit of the game as well as Nunez’s biggest hit of the season. Shields was able to retire Eric Chavez, but Brett Gardner laced an opposite field single and Derek Jeter walked, bringing Robinson Cano — hitting third in place of a getting-the-afternoon-off Mark Teixeira, a move that more and more people seem to be clamoring for of late — to the plate. Joe Maddon went to the bullpen, and to the bafflement of Tampa Bay fans across Twitter, brought lefty J.P. Howell in.
Now, surely Maddon knows that trying to gain the platoon advantage against Cano is rather pointless, but he did it anyway and it wound up biting him in the worst way, as Robbie blasted a 3-1 slider to deep center field, scoring both Gardner and Jeter to give the Yankees back the lead on a huge double (.261 WPA). Shields was charged with all four runs — double the amount they’d scored on him across the three previous times they’d seen him — increasing his season ERA against the Yankees by nearly a full run to 2.40 in 30 innings, up from 1.59. Of course, that’s still the second-best ERA against the Yankees in 2011 among pitchers who have made a minimum of three starts against the team. Josh Beckett is now tops among that criteria, with a 1.85 in 34 IP.
And so the big, come-from-behind win officially catapulted the Yankees back into the playoffs for the 16th time in the last 17 seasons. Their magic number to clinch the AL East is now down to just two, which means they can do it tonight if they sweep the doubleheader and Boston loses. Even if it doesn’t happen tonight, at this point with a magic number of just 2 and only 8 games left to play — not to mention three against the team behind them — it’s more or less a formality at this point.
All things considered, it’s pretty insane to think that the 2011 Yankees are going to end up as American League East division champions, considering how many people figured Boston winning the division was a foregone conclusion prior to a single game being played this year. To his credit, William was the only member of our entire 10-man staff to pick the Yankees as AL East champs, so kudos on what appeared to be a rather bold pick at the time.
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