NEW YORK — Yankees fans broke out in in a raucous roar in the seventh inning, momentarily startling Alex Rodriguez. The slugger stepped out of the batter's box and saw the news on the center field scoreboard: Baltimore had lost, New York was the AL East champion.
A couple of innings later, the Yankees finished off a 14-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox for their 13th division title in 17 years after a thrilling back-and-forth race for the crown with the Orioles.
"This year we had to fight, scratch and claw," Nick Swisher said.
Covered in bubbly and wearing his new AL East champions hat, Derek Jeter sounded almost relieved.
"This was difficult. Come into the last day of the season, nobody knows what's going on. We've been taking it one day at a time for quite some time," Jeter said. "It feels good."
With the new playoff format, the Yankees' next move is to wait.
Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson each hit a pair of homers. Cano went 4 for 4 and tied a career high with six RBIs as New York (95-67) finished two games ahead of Baltimore and secured home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. The Yankees will open on the road Sunday against the winner of Friday's wild-card game between Baltimore and Texas.
"To have the best record and not know where you're going is strange," manager Joe Girardi said.
In front of fans poised to party from the first pitch on the final night of the regular season, the Yankees completed a three-game sweep of the last-place Red Sox to win their second consecutive division crown.
When Freddy Garcia struck out Ivan De Jesus looking to end it, third-string catcher Francisco Cervelli pumped his fist and his teammates hugged and slapped fives on the field. They put on their newly printed champion shirts and hats while fans feted them with a standing ovation as "New York, New York," blared over the loudspeakers. The team walked off the field to chants of "Let's go Yankees!"
"Now the real season starts," Jeter said.
Getting to the postseason, though, wasn't easy.
New York led the division by 10 games on July 18 but the Orioles caught up on Sept. 4 and were tied with the Yankees after 10 different days in September. Many players credit Girardi with keeping the clubhouse calm during that stretch.
"He's very even-keeled," Granderson said. "You never see him get too excited or down."
The Yankees rode the long ball all season, and the four homers in the finale set a franchise record at 245.
Hiroki Koroda (16-11) shut Boston down with an encouraging performance after struggling through much of September. He allowed two runs and seven hits over seven innings.
With New York heading into the playoffs without career saves leader Mariano Rivera – he tore a knee ligament shagging flies in May – the rout gave the Yankees a chance to rest Rafael Soriano, who threw 43 pitches over two innings of the 12-inning, 4-3 comeback win Tuesday night. It is the first time since 1981 that the Yankees have been in the postseason without Rivera on the roster.
Bobby Valentine brought the lineup card out to the umpires for what might have been his final time as manager of the Red Sox, who finished last in the AL East at 69-93 in his first season leading the club. Boston, in the cellar for the first time in two decades, ended the year with eight straight losses, their longest skid since losing nine in a row in 2001. The Red Sox lost 26 off their last 33 games.
"Very disappointing season. Extremely disappointing," Valentine said.
Granderson hit his career-best 42nd homer in the second, a three-run shot off Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-7), making his first start since Sept. 19. Cano then connected in the third for a 5-1 lead. One batter later Matsuzaka was finished, most likely ending his six-year career with Boston.
Cano hit his 33rd homer in the fifth, following Rodriguez's double. It was A-Rod's first extra-base hit since Sept. 14.
Cano has been on quite a tear, hitting .615 (24 for 39) during a stretch of nine straight multihit games that lifted his average to .313.
"It's a great feeling," Cano said. "It just came up at the right time."
Granderson matched his teammate with a solo shot to right-center leading off the seventh for a 10-2 lead.
The Yankees narrowly avoided what would've been their biggest blown division lead in team history – they led by six games in 1933 and finished seven back of the original Washington Senators.
This summer's skid was brought on as CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Rodriguez got hurt. The Yankees stumbled through August – often looking old and tired. But New York went 19-8 down the stretch, thanks to two stirring comeback victories led by 40-year-old Raul Ibanez.
Girardi thinks the group was able to make a run after losing the division lead because they were old – well, experienced.
"I think having that experience in there when it got to zero no one panicked," he said of the division lead. "They had the same personality every day. The looseness, some of the guys were goofy."
NOTES: Jeter led the AL with 216 hits and finished with 99 runs. ... The Yankees won the season series 13-5, their most wins since 2001. ... There were 232 home runs at Yankee Stadium, up from 208 last year. ... The Yankees had a home attendance of 3,542,406, their lowest in four seasons at new Yankee Stadium. ... The Red Sox hired Eddie Bane as a special assistant, player personnel. Bane spent the last two seasons as a scout for the Detroit Tigers. He was director of scouting for the Angels from 2004-10. Among the players picked under his direction: Jered Weaver, Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout.