Yankees show they have heart for a playoff fight

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For 99 Nathan Eovaldi pitches, the Yankees made their familiar zombie-like stagger toward another deflating day in the sun. They were four outs away from watching their divisional deficit plunge into double figures, and from paramedics rushing into their clubhouse to check for a postseason pulse.

You saw the game, so you know what happened next, starting with Brett Gardner’s RBI single to right. Eovaldi walked off to a well-earned ovation, 100 distinguished pitches in his back pocket, and just about every man, woman and child in Fenway Park — including those who made the drive up from New York — figured the first-place Red Sox would go ahead and close out a rival that, over the 2021 season, hasn’t belonged in the same ballpark with them.

Boston was about to claim its 10th victory in a dozen meetings with the Yankees when a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the latest victory: Adam Ottavino couldn’t get anyone out. Two bloops to right from Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres, sandwiched around a Rougned Odor double off the Green Monster, and suddenly the visitors were leading 4-3, and it seemed players and coaches and fans on both sides had the same exact question written across their stunned faces:

What the hell just happened?

The Yankees showed a willingness to fight for their season, that’s what happened. They showed a heartbeat, a pulse, an ability to win at Fenway while trailing late. They showed an ability to win at Fenway with Aroldis Chapman on the mound in the ninth, desperately needing the two-out strikeout of Kiké Hernandez the closer got with the winning runs in scoring position. Shoot, they showed an ability to win at Fenway, period. That’s going to matter in October, if the Yankees make it there beyond their regular-season finale against the Rays on Oct. 3.

Up front, understand that the Yankees are almost certainly not going to win the AL East this year, not when they’re still eight games out of first place. They will have to pull this off by claiming the second wild card, winning the wild-card shootout, and then taking it from there.

Saturday night, after Chapman refused to deliver another implosion for the ages, that felt like a doable proposition. Amazing, given that for most of the day it seemed like Fenway was the place where the Yankees’ 2021 season had gone to die.

What did this all mean?

“That we’re in the fight,” manager Aaron Boone said, “and that we’ve actually played some really good baseball over the last couple of weeks, sprinkled in with some really difficult, devastating losses. I’m not surprised, but these guys haven’t wavered. They haven’t folded up or felt sorry for themselves or anything like that.”

Maybe they would have folded without the energy and urgency provided by Estevan Florial and Greg Allen, who have all but performed life-saving CPR on this team. For all the good they have done, Florial and Allen nearly committed a disastrous unforced error in the eighth, when they bumped each other in pursuit of J.D. Martinez’s two-out, two-on fly. Allen made the catch to preserve his team’s 4-3 lead, and the two engaged in a spirited conversation on the way back to the dugout, with Allen pointing two fingers at his own two eyes and Florial throwing his left arm around his teammate’s shoulder.

The most encouraging development from that play? Two newbie Yankees with a lot to lose both fearlessly went after the ball with the sun in their eyes.

“Any time you win a tough game like this against a tough opponent in this building,” Boone said, “that’s hopefully something that does give you confidence, and does help you along through the long season, especially with some of the younger guys that we have playing and playing in this environment, some for the first time. Hopefully it is something that does give you a little bit of confidence that you can play in this kind of environment.”

Of course, Boone is a leading scholar in the field of big rivalry moments. His walk-off Game 7 homer against the Red Sox in 2003 would not be recalled quite as fondly had it been launched against, say, the Twins.

The Yankees need to win Sunday to split the series, and to back up the message they just sent to Boston and the rest of the American League. And after his players return off the injured list, Boone needs to keep the speed and excitement embodied by Florial and Allen a part of what he’s trying to accomplish.

His Yankees have the talent to make it to the playoffs. Saturday, they showed they might have enough heart to get there too.

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