Commentary

And that's the AL East race, folks

It feels like more than one game as the Yanks score rarity: convincing win over Rays

Updated: September 22, 2010, 3:57 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Nothing more to see here. Move along.

Technically, there is more to see -- two more games between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays here this week, 19 games combined for the teams after that until we wrap up the 2010 regular season Oct. 3 -- but that is what it felt like Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.

Under a glimmering harvest moon, the Yankees reaped a win over the Rays that seemed as if counted for more than just one game in the standings. It felt like game, set and match.

The players and managers, of course, would be crazy to declare a pennant race over with that much more baseball left to be played and a relatively narrow sliver of distance between the two teams involved.

Columnists, however, toil under no such obligations, and from the looks of Tuesday night's 8-3 Yankees victory, it is a pretty safe assumption that these two teams, which have breathed down each other's necks like Affirmed and Alydar all summer, are just now beginning to show some real separation.

[+] EnlargeLance Berkman
Al Bello/Getty ImagesLance Berkman gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead with a two-run double, and he scored on a Curtis Granderson single.

And even though it's a pretty solid bet they will meet again in the American League Championship Series, the first portion of our pennant race appears about to be won by the Yankees.

Yes, it was only one game of the 16 they have played so far this season, and yes, they remain remarkably close statistically and in the standings, and yet, sometimes certain games can feel like more than 1/162nd of the baseball season.

This one felt, if not quite like a fight-ender, at the very least like a game-changer.

For the past two months, these two teams have played a series of nail-biters, and for the past two weeks, they have seesawed back and forth in the standings, neither club able to put enough air between itself and the other to drive a shim.

But Tuesday night, the Yankees were able to accomplish what amounts to a blowout, the first time since July 18 they were able to beat the Rays by more than two runs. And for the first time since since Sept. 7, they were able to pry open a 2½-game lead in the AL East, which, given the nature of this battle, so far feels almost like a runaway.

"It means nothing unless we come out and play well tomorrow," Derek Jeter said with characteristic discretion. "We haven't accomplished anything yet."

"A win is just a win," said Jorge Posada, like Jeter, practiced in the art of understated confidence. "We're happy with the way we played today. Leave it at that."

And manager Joe Girardi, the most cautious Yankee of all, added predictably, "Obviously, it's better to have a 2½-game lead than to have no lead at all, but there's a lot of games left and you still have to play good baseball. Your destiny's still in front of you."

Today, the Yankees' destiny as AL East champs seems a lot closer than it did three days ago, when they lost a dreadful game in Baltimore, or even Monday afternoon, when this four-game series against the Rays -- who were sitting just a half-game back -- loomed as a possible crash site for their season.

Now, no matter what happens over the next two days, the Rays cannot leave here any better off than the way they arrived, and in fact could limp out of New York a formidable 4½ games back, which would be their biggest deficit of the season.

And with CC Sabathia pitching one of those two games, even if it is a rematch of that sweaty-palms pitching duel he locked into with David Price last week in St. Petersburg, Fla., the odds are the Yankees will win at least one of those games.

That would leave a division that was up for grabs pretty much in the grasp of the Yankees.

"It seems like we're hitting on all cylinders at the right time," said Nick Swisher, who started a five-run Yankees first inning with a solo home run off James Shields, the outfielder's 27th of the season. "We feel good about where we are. Everybody's kinda healing up at the same time, and we can finally put our A-lineup out there."

Indeed, compared to the collection of scrubs Girardi sent out to support Andy Pettitte on Sunday, Tuesday's lineup was a murderers' row. For the first time all season, all the big bats -- Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Posada and Swisher -- were in the lineup with the table-setters, Jeter, Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson, as well as Lance Berkman, brought in specifically to be the DH against right-handed pitching.

And from the first inning, that lineup looked virtually unstoppable. After Swisher's home run, Shields became unstrung by a walk to Teixeira and an infield hit by Rodriguez. Soon to follow were a ringing RBI single by Posada, a laser of a two-run double over the center fielder's head by Berkman and a ribbie single by Granderson.

From that point on, even though Shields settled in and the Rays scrapped to make things momentarily interesting, the game felt as if it were over, with the race for the division soon to follow.

"They're not going away," Berkman said. "But at the same time, I think from a psychological standpoint we made them feel uncomfortable here. I'm not saying us winning these two games is gonna make them tuck tail and run because I know it won't, but I do think it let them know we are going to be incredibly difficult to beat in this building and we're gonna be a tough team to beat, period."

Over the course of two games in the Bronx, the Yankees have scored more runs (16) than they scored in all three games last week at Tropicana Field (12). And after having struggled through three straight one-run games, two of which they lost, victories by two runs Monday and a whopping five Tuesday felt more than comfortable.

In the other clubhouse, the Rays had to feel overwhelmed. And demoralized.

"Well, I want to believe we'll be able to come back," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We had our opportunities tonight; we just couldn't find a way."

It was a night that made you feel perhaps Tampa Bay's best opportunities to beat the Yankees in the regular season had come and gone. A night that felt like a breakthrough, a game changer, maybe even a backbreaker.

A night that made it seem as if you had seen all there was to see between these two teams for the rest of the season, and that maybe, they could both try to do it all over again in October.

GAME NOTES: Javier Vazquez, who had not pitched since Sept. 10 in Texas, came into the game in relief of Phil Hughes in the seventh inning and pitched a scoreless inning, although he did allow three hits. Asked how he felt about being bypassed for 11 days, Vazquez said, "Obviously, as a competitor, I was disappointed. I can't hide that fact, you know. But we been playing some important games, and I know [Girardi's] trying to get first place and he's been using the main guys first. I understand. Maybe I can prove him wrong and he'll start using me." ... Jeter had two more hits to raise his average to .265 and extend his hitting streak to 10 games, the 42nd time in his career he has hit in at least 10 straight. Incredibly, that is the most in Yankees history, even more than Joe (56-game hitting streak) DiMaggio ever had. ... Wednesday's matchup: A.J. Burnett (10-13, 5.08) versus RHP Wade Davis (12-9, 4.19). First pitch, 7:05 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
Follow Wallace on Twitter »  Chat archive »

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE