By RONALD BLUM, Associated Press
NEW YORK -- A month past his 40th birthday, Jorge Posada walked up to home plate and found himself in a position so familiar, yet so different.
A starter no more, a champion still.
Posada came off the bench and helped the Yankees to yet another first-place finish, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run single in the eighth inning Wednesday night. The big hit propelled New York to sweep the Tampa Bay Rays by identical 4-2 scores in a day-night doubleheader, clinching the AL East title.
So filled with emotion was Posada, he was sure the game was over when his bases-loaded hit bounced into right field as pinch-runner Greg Golson came home from third.
"I thought it was the bottom of the ninth, to tell the truth," Posada said. "Then I saw Tex (Mark Teixeira) scoring from second base, and I was like, `What's going on?'"
For the Rays, it was a damaging day as they missed a chance to move up on Boston in the AL wild-card race. The Red Sox lost to Baltimore 6-4, but still extended their lead over Tampa Bay to 2 1/2 games. The Los Angeles Angels also are 2 1/2 games behind.
"We feel lucky," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're very fortunate that Baltimore has played as well as they have."
Accomplishing most of their regular-season goals with a week to spare, the Yankees earned their 16th playoff berth in 17 seasons by winning the day game behind Robinson Cano's tiebreaking, two-run double in the eighth. Mariano Rivera, a five-time World Series champion along with Posada and Derek Jeter, closed out the opener for save No. 603, extending his own career record.
"You think about the two games we won today, with Mo closing the first one and Jorgy getting the big hit in the second one, it's awesome," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
They didn't bother celebrating after the opener – Yankees blase at its best – but vowed to let loose when they secured the division crown, their 12th in 16 years. They made good on that promise, donning goggles and spraying the bubbly in the clubhouse.
Of course, it was domestic – Mumm Napa Brut Prestige – and Lunetta Prosecco from Italy. At Yankee Stadium, the good French champagne is saved for World Series titles.
In the opener, Alex Rodriguez hit an RBI double in the first, but that was all the Yankees got off Jeff Shields (15-12) until the eighth. Desmond Jennings put the Rays ahead 2-1 with a two-run homer in the second inning off emergency starter Hector Noesi.
Eduardo Nunez then hooked an 82 mph changeup into the first row of the left-field seats leading off the eighth. Brett Gardner singled with one out, Jeter walked, and that was it for Shields.
J.P. Howell relieved and fell behind 3-1, and Cano lined an opposite-field drive into the gap in left-center. In the dugout, Shields briefly put a towel over his head, unable to watch.
In the night game, CC Sabathia failed in his bid to reach 20 wins for the second time in his career. Wasting a 2-0 lead, he allowed solo homers to No. 9 hitter Kelly Shoppach in the fifth and Sean Rodriguez in the seventh, the latter clanking high off the left-field foul pole. That offset Cano's second-inning homer and a run-scoring, double-play grounder by Jesus Montero in the fourth.
Tampa Bay had a chance when Jennings singled with one out in the eighth, B.J. Upton singled on a liner off Sabathia's glove and Evan Longoria, down 0-2 in the count, worked out an eight-pitch walk.
David Robertson (4-0) relieved, and Ben Zobrist grounded into a 4-6-3 double play on his first pitch. After returning from the birth of a child, Zobrist had struck out in his first four at-bats of the twinbill.
In the bottom half, pinch-hitter Nick Swisher doubled off Jake McGee (3-2) with one out, and Curtis Granderson flied out. Juan Cruz came in and walked Teixeira on four pitches, and Cesar Ramos fell behind Cano 3-1 before walking him intentionally to load the bases for Posada. , who pumped a fist as he ran up the first-base line after his hard hit off Brandon Gomes.
Back in May, Posada had asked to be taken out of the lineup after he learned Girardi had dropped him to No. 9 in the batting order for a game against Boston. He returned the next day and apologized, and seemed to accept his role as a part-time designated hitter.
"It's been a tough year, but I don't look at the past, I look at the future. I look at the day by day. I keep looking forward," Posada said. "We got something special going on here and, hopefully, we can continue this ride."
Girardi also had Jeter and Alex Rodriguez on the bench, but he decided Posada was more used to pinch hitting at this stage.
"This is a guy who has been a great Yankee, has had a wonderful career and has had a lot of big hits in his time," the manager said. "He's found a way to enjoy this season, which I think was really important. The thing about this game, we all want to believe we can play it forever."
When Yankees reliever Rafael Soriano struck out Matt Joyce to end it, New York players – in orderly fashion, of course – streamed to the mound to finally celebrate. They stayed out for about five minutes.
After failing to sign Cliff Lee last December and losing Andy Pettitte to retirement, the Yankees watched as many predicted the Red Sox would win the AL East. That motivated them through the long season.
"It's not often that we're considered the underdogs," Girardi said. "But I understood."
NOTES: Yankees scheduled starter Phil Hughes was scratched from the opener and had an injection of painkiller in his back. GM Brian Cashman anticipates Hughes will return to the mound next week during the final series of the regular season. ... Luis Ayala (2-2), the seventh of eight Yankees pitchers, relieved with two on and two outs in the eighth of the opener and struck out his only two batters. ... No team had clinched a playoff berth in a doubleheader opener since the 1999 Red Sox, who chose to wait until after the nightcap to celebrate. ... The Yankees have never failed to finish first after opening a lead of at least 6 1/2 games.
WATCH: Yankees Clinch A.L. East Title