The Yankees inched closer to their first playoff berth since 2012 on Wednesday night, but they continued to do so while moving in reverse, dropping their third consecutive game to the Boston Red Sox, 9-5, in 11 innings.
A night of scoreboard watching that produced the right combination of results elsewhere ended in disappointment for the Yankees as the Red Sox pummeled the back end of their bullpen for four runs in the 11th, including a two-run blast by Mookie Betts, his second home run of the game.
The Yankees began the day needing a victory and some help to clinch a playoff spot. Two of the following would have sufficed: a loss by the Minnesota Twins, a loss by the Houston Astros, and a loss by the Texas Rangers or the Los Angeles Angels.
The Yankees got the help they needed when the Twins were routed, 10-2, in the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland and the Angels fell to Oakland, 8-7, when Collin Cowgill grounded out with the tying run at third.
Now the Yankees must wait, with four more chances to gain a clinching victory — or to wait for others to lose.
“It’s frustrating,” Manager Joe Girardi said of the defeat. “We had a lot of opportunities.”
The Yankees, whom many observers had expected to miss the playoffs this year, have no shot at catching the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East. The Blue Jays clinched their first division title in 22 years shortly after the Yankees took the field Wednesday.
But the Yankees’ lead in the wild-card race — two and a half games over Houston, which won at Seattle late Wednesday, and three games over Los Angeles — means a postseason berth looks all but assured.
Still, the Yankees’ path toward the playoffs has not been smooth.
The team has gotten a surprising revival from Alex Rodriguez, a seamless transition to the closer’s role from Andrew Miller, and steady growth from Didi Gregorius at shortstop, the position manned for so many years by Derek Jeter. But the Yankees frittered away a division lead that stood at seven games in late July; lost their cleanup hitter, Mark Teixeira, for the rest of the season; and had five starting pitchers land on the disabled list.
Wednesday night was, in many ways, emblematic of the ups and downs of their season, the ending leaving them exasperated.
Masahiro Tanaka, making his first start in 12 days after straining a hamstring, had a wobbly outing, and reliever Dellin Betances, who has been nearly infallible, allowed a tying home run by Betts. The Yankees also left 15 runners on base, drawing four walks in the eighth inning but somehow not scoring. Gregorius was 0 for 5 and left 10 runners on base — seven in scoring position.
“Today was a tough loss,” Betances said. “Anytime you have the lead that late, you expect to win.”
Rodriguez gave the Yankees a 5-4 lead in the sixth with his 33rd home run, and Girardi operated as if it were a playoff game. But for one of the few times this season, Girardi’s formulaic use of the bullpen backfired when he lifted Justin Wilson, who had retired five in a row, with two outs in the seventh in favor of Betances.
After falling behind in the count, 2-0, Betances threw a fastball that Betts belted over the left-field wall for his 17th home run of the season, tying the score at 5-5.
The rare mistake by Betances drew boos from the sparse crowd at Yankee Stadium.
Wilson (23 pitches), Betances (20) and Andrew Miller (38) combined to throw five innings, leaving their availability in question for Thursday. Beyond those three, the Yankees’ relief corps is a day-to-day proposition.
In the 11th, Andrew Bailey gave up three hits, although one came on a misplay, to begin the inning. Then Chasen Shreve, who had been a steady force for five months, continued his recent struggles, surrendering a two-run homer to Betts.
“I’ve never felt like I’ve been hit this hard before,” said a visibly shaken Shreve, who has allowed 13 hits — including four home runs — in his last eight appearances. “I feel like you can ground that ball out all day. You can pop that ball up all day. But it’s just not happening right now.”
Lost in the late drama was one of the night’s most significant developments: the unsteady showing by Tanaka, who surrendered a booming three-run homer by Travis Shaw in the first inning, consistently found himself in hitters’ counts and needed 95 pitches to slog through five innings.
“He looked like a guy who hadn’t pitched in 12 days,” Girardi said.
The showing is not likely to give Girardi pause about starting Tanaka in the wild-card game, assuming the Yankees make it there, but it was disconcerting because a repeat performance could doom the Yankees.
It was an even tougher night for Gregorius. In the fifth, after Wade Miley walked Greg Bird and Rob Refsnyder to load the bases, Gregorius swung at the first pitch he saw and flied out to left. The Red Sox intentionally walked Refsnyder in the seventh with two outs and the go-ahead run at third and were rewarded when Gregorius flied out to center.
Gregorius was not the only one who had some forgettable moments. Ellsbury, who drew a leadoff walk in the eighth, was picked off by the left-hander Tommy Layne, and Chase Headley was doubled off second after Carlos Beltran lined to third base to end the third inning. Brett Gardner, who has been in a second-half slump, grounded out with the bases loaded to end the eighth.
Still, another victory — or the right combination of losses — will give the Yankees a chance to reset.
“If we take care of business, we get a chance to start anew,” Miller said. “That’s what we look forward to — anything can happen once you get there. I’ve seen that firsthand multiple times. Once you get into it, you’ve got the team that can win games and get hot and take off. That’s what’s important.”
STEPHEN DREW, still bothered by dizziness, flew to Pittsburgh to be evaluated by a concussion specialist who had treated him when he was hit in the head by a pitch in 2013.