AP NEWS

Klapisch: Yankees showing signs of life at home

July 20, 2016 GMT

NEW YORK — None of this was supposed to be possible, at least not until Sunday night when the Yankees found themselves at the doorstep of a win-or-else, win-or-sell crossroads that could’ve sucked the air out of the rest of the 2016 schedule.

But here the Bombers are, three days later — three wins later — and now they’re at make-or-break moment that means business. With a win over the Red Sox and back-to-back victories over the Orioles, including Tuesday night’s 7-1 thrashing at the Stadium, the Yankees have a chance to re-enter the AL East’s orbit, but only if Michael Pineda can capitalize on this mini-surge tonight. Joe Girardi wasn’t kidding when he said, “this was a really big night for us.” The Yankees were nearly perfect in taking down the division-leading O’s. Nathan Eovaldi threw 5 1/3 strong innings, Starlin Castro hit a monster-two-run homer in the second and the bullpen retired 11 in a row down the stretch. And guess what: Girardi didn’t even have to use Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman.

Instead, it was Anthony Swarzak and Nick Goody who smothered the AL’s top home run hitters. Swarzak rescued Eovaldi with the bases loaded in the sixth, and Goody put a finishing touch on the Yankees’ Take That by striking out the side in the ninth.

So where do the Bombers go from here? We’ve been asking the same question for weeks, lost in a maze of the club’s mixed signals. Ninety three games into the season, the sample size is big enough to say the Yankees are on that forever road to nowhere — a .505 team that wins just often enough to avoid catastrophe, but not nearly often enough to earn a wild-card spot.

But Girardi hasn’t stopped believing in an unlikely run to October, and it’s hard to say he isn’t entitled. If Pineda can outpitch Yovani Gallardo tonight, the Yankees will inch even closer to first place. Extend the best-case scenario another 24 hours and CC Sabathia finishes off the sweep Thursday afternoon. That conceivably could leave the Yankees 4½ out with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound against the Giants on Friday night.

So it wasn’t entirely crazy to hear Girardi say, “it all starts with Michael [tonight].” The manager isn’t trying to pull a fast one on the ticket buyers; he’s serious. Except that logic has plenty of compelling counterarguments, starting with Pineda’s utter unreliability.

Big Mike has allowed 10 earned runs in his past 11 innings, and is otherwise mired in a nightmare of a lost season. A 5.56 ERA hardly inspires confidence, nor does Sabathia’s recent slump — 25 earned runs in 28¤ innings (7.94) — suggest he’s the one to keep the Orioles in check either.

But fair is fair: Girardi himself identified Sunday night as the breaking point. Had Tanaka not beaten Boston, 3-1, it’s a near certainty ownership would’ve finally let GM Brian Cashman begin selling off the assets, starting with Chapman and Carlos Beltran.

Cashman probably wouldn’t mind getting started on this process. But he’s so far been overruled by Hal Steinbrenner and Randy Levine, and if the sentiment in the clubhouse counts for anything, no one else wants to give up, either.

Girardi says, “my focus is on making up ground” but it doesn’t take a deep understanding of human nature to know why he’s sweating the overview. A fourth straight year without a playoff series in October brings Girardi that much closer to an eventual firing. No wonder he’s pumping up the troops. His neck is exposed.

So when Eovaldi ran into trouble in the sixth, Girardi didn’t call on Swarzak just to audition him for 2017. To the contrary; the right-hander was summoned for all the reasons that had to do with the here and now.

Girardi said, “[Swarzak] has pitched in these situations before. He’s experienced, has a couple of pitches and he has some velo.”

Swarzak realized the situation was critical. The Yankees were leading by only two runs, and with the bases loaded, one swing by cleanup hitter Mike Trumbo could’ve destroyed the fragile scaffolding that’s holding together the Yankees’ return to relevance.

Remember: this is what the Orioles have been doing all season, hitting monster blasts, scoring more runs late in the game than anyone in the majors. They’re certified heartbreakers, and only the most naïve Yankees fan wasn’t worried that Swarzak might just shrivel.

But he didn’t. Instead, the right-hander said, “you want to challenge somebody with your best stuff” and stood up to Trumbo with a 94-mph fastball. The result? He popped out to Rob Refsnyder, who made an over-the-shoulder catch in foul territory behind first base.

Great catch. Brilliant catch, actually. Refsnyder wheeled and delivered a strike to Brian McCann, keeping Adam Jones from tagging up and scoring from third base. And just like that the Orioles began deflating. Jonathan Schoop popped out to Didi Gregorius, the inning — and rally — were over, and you could feel the Stadium come to life.

No one was crazy enough to say the season had turned on Swarzak’s rescue. But the vibe was different over the last three innings, as the Yankees fattened their lead to 7-1 on Chase Headley’s two-run home run in the eighth. Suddenly nothing felt impossible anymore.

We’ll see if Pineda can cash in on the new karma. Any cynic would say this is just one long tease, but don’t tell the Yankees. They’re at the crossroads, ready for anything.