If the Yankees do need to get through the wild-card game, a prospect that seems more likely now than it did on Thursday, at least they have just the man to pitch in it. Based on what they saw Sunday from Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees can be a wild card and feel as if they have an ace up their sleeve.
Not that they are conceding the division title to the Blue Jays despite having lost three of four in a daunting, draining weekend series at Yankee Stadium. In fact, the Yankees felt rejuvenated after a 5-0 win Sunday in arguably their biggest game of the year.
Tanaka gave everything he had and all that they needed: seven dominant innings in which he allowed four hits and no walks, striking out seven. He did it with full knowledge of the stakes: the division title was slipping away, and that title is huge because the alternative is a one-game crapshoot.
"First off, I particularly don't look at myself as a really big-game starter. But if anything, I think it's the strong sense of feeling of 'I'm not going to give in, I'm going to do my best out there,' " Tanaka said through an interpreter. "They came in and took three in a row and my mindset was 'I'm not going to let these guys sweep us.' "
As it was, the Blue Jays increased their lead this weekend by two games, to 3½. So sheer statistical logic favors them to win the division. If the Yankees do land in wild-card status and are faced with a single playoff game, and if the rotation works out that Tanaka (12-6, 3.40) can start that game, they can feel as if they have a head start.
Not that Joe Girardi is conceding anything. He reiterated before the game: "We need to keep our foot on the gas . . . You do not want to be in a one-game playoff if you can avoid it."
Not once in his seven innings (108 pitches, 76 strikes) did Tanaka allow a Blue Jay to reach third base. Toronto never had more than one runner on base in an inning. That is saying something, considering the Blue Jays had gotten all the way around to home 30 times in the previous three games.
"I had a sense of having some of the better stuff today earlier in the game. I think my confidence today grew little by little," Tanaka said.
Girardi was more emphatic, saying, "I think he had a little bit of everything today . . . We needed it. We needed some distance, he gave it to us. We needed to shut them down, he did that. That's a big win for us."
The manager added that Tanaka came with a reputation for relishing responsibility. "He enjoyed it in Japan,'' he said, "and he looked forward to coming here and pitching in games like today."
His teammates followed the pitcher's quiet lead. After R.A. Dickey (10-11, 4.08) allowed a pair of walks and a single by Alex Rodriguez with none out in the second, Dustin Ackley and Didi Gregorius delivered sacrifice flies. Ackley, starting at first base because Greg Bird had never faced a major league knuckleball, hit a two-run homer in the fourth.
"Yesterday was a long, tough one, probably the longest day I've ever had in the major leagues, and to come here today and get a win and clear our minds was just huge," Ackley said.
Rodriguez, who went 2-for-4 and scored on a headfirst slide on Gregorius' sacrifice fly, said, "Look, a lot of people counted us out. I wouldn't do that."
Tanaka was asked about starting a wild-card game and turned away the question the way he stuffed the Blue Jays. "I'm not thinking about that,'' he said. "We're looking to take this division."
But if it comes to that extra game, they will like their chances.