Fans were treated to the full 2012 Yankees experience last night. This is a team that wastes so many golden opportunities to score runs. This is a team that can inspire its own fan base, in the middle of a pennant race, to boo some of its most important players. This is a team that for a month now has been dangerously close to falling out of first place, even though it once enjoyed a double-digit lead. And yet, despite all that, this is also a team that enters the final day of the season alone in first place, with the best record in the American League.
The 2012 Yankees can drive fans crazy sometimes: They're certainly not without their flaws, and it's still possible that they could finish second in the American League East. (A loss tonight, a Baltimore win, and a loss in a one-game playoff to the O's tomorrow would do it.) But boy, game 161 was something, wasn't it? And Raul Ibanez — the same guy who played the hero's part in that wild extra-innings game against Oakland — came through first with the game-tying home run in the ninth, then again with the game-winning hit in the twelfth.
The Yankees trailed by two in the bottom of the ninth, after James Freaking Loney extended the Boston lead to 3–1 with a homer off Rafael Soriano. And so after Curtis Granderson singled to lead off the inning, Joe Girardi turned to his bench, hoping Ibanez would tie the game with one swing. He did:
The Orioles had already won in St. Pete, and so the Yankees needed to rally in order to maintain a one-game lead in the A.L. East heading into the season's final (scheduled) day. A loss last night would have put the Yanks and O's in a flat-footed tie this morning, turning tonight into a tortuous evening of channel-flipping. With a win, though, the Yankees would control their own divisional destiny in game No. 162.
Not that that win came immediately after Ibanez's home run. As they're wont to do, the Yankees squandered a chance to push across the winning run in the ninth: With one out, Derek Jeter doubled, Nick Swisher was intentionally walked after getting ahead in the count, and A-Rod was unintentionally walked to load the bases. But Mark Teixeira — who had a brutal night at the plate, after homering in his cheek-puffing return to the lineup on Monday — flew out to shallow center, and Robinson Cano grounded out to end the inning.
There were other, lesser heroes in this game: Derek Lowe, for instance, threw two innings of scoreless relief to give his team a chance to win. (By the way: Derek Lowe is throwing hugely important innings during a pennant race for the Yankees. That's hard to wrap your head around, isn't it?) But ultimately, this was Ibanez's night: In the twelfth, after Andrew Miller walked two batters to put the winning run in scoring position, Ibanez's single won the game. Let's watch that one again, too:
And so the lead in the A.L. East remains one game, and Oakland's win last night over Texas means the Yankees also have the best record in the American League on the morning of the final (again, scheduled) day of the regular season. The Orioles never did go away, but the Yankees' magic number is down to one now. If the Yankees take care of business tonight, there's nothing Baltimore can do to keep them from winning the East. Hiroki Kuroda gets the ball in game 162, against Daisuke Matsuzaka.