For the Yankees, it's a playoff berth worth celebrating - The Buffalo News

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For the Yankees, it's a playoff berth worth celebrating

TORONTO -- Rebuild and contend in the same year. It's usually a foolish thing to try. It's viewed by most as staying down the middle without making a real decision. But it's exactly what the New York Yankees did this year.

Lo and behold, they got it right.

The Yankees are going to the postseason, no small accomplishment given all they've endured this season. Saturday's 5-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays was a first step, only the clinching of a wild-card berth. But it was still well worth a celebration, prompting the beer and champagne to go flying in all directions in the cramped visitors' clubhouse of Rogers Centre.

The Yankees are 86-68 with eight games left. The most likely postseason scenario has them hosting the Minnesota Twins in the American League's wild-card game on Oct. 3 and then, if they win that one, facing the unenviable challenge of the Cleveland Indians in the division series.

Those facts were for another day. For at least Saturday night, the Yankees were stepping back and taking stock of where they've been.

"It shows you that it was a real team effort," manager Joe Girardi said in the quiet of his office, as the roar of his players' party echoed from down the hall. "Trades, draft choices, signing of certain free agents in the winter shows we did it really quickly. ... The unselfishness of a lot of players came about with some of these trades. They were willing to do anything and it was a special group."

Greg Bird blasted a three-run homer in the fifth to erase a 1-0 deficit and send the Yankees on their way. Trade acquisition Sonny Gray threw six innings and another trade pickup, Todd Frazier, also homered. Youngster Chad Green threw a perfect seventh while reacquired David Robertson and re-signed closer Aroldis Chapman went 1-2-3 in the eighth and ninth.

"This is just a beginning," said rookie slugger Aaron Judge, who certainly couldn't care a bit about his MLB-rookie record 200th strikeout when you consider he's sitting on 46 home runs. "We've got a lot more we want to do as a team. Getting the chance to be in the postseason, now we've just got to keep it rolling.

"We've got one of the best bullpens in baseball. We've got a stacked lineup. We just go out there and have fun. We compete our butt off every single pitch."

As the players donned postseason T-shirts, there were plenty of targets. A notable one was the 6-foot-7 frame of Judge, goggles on top of his head and smile as wide as the room. First base coach and Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Pena unleashed a stealth attack, running from an adjacent hallway and unleashing a torrent of champagne just as he popped a cork from a bottle. The target seemed to be anyone it would hit.

(From the worlds-colliding department was this nugget: The clubhouse TVs were still set to Sportsnet, the network that shows Blue Jays games. What was on the screens at both ends of the room as the Yankees partied on? The Sabres-Leafs preseason game from KeyBank Center. Your humble columnist was certainly the only one who cared to sneak a look).

The Yankees didn't do a total rebuild this year as GM Brian Cashman was able to meld young players with his holdovers and add the return of Chapman in free agency. Under the scrutiny of the New York baseball media and its crazed fan base, you really can't tank.

"I didn't know exactly what we were going to be this year," Girardi said. "But when I saw the way these kids were playing in spring training and the depth of our talent, it got me really excited and I thought it was possible. Going into spring training, I wasn't quite sure but coming out of it I felt really good."

Bucky Gleason: How Cashman has changed the Yankees, and himself

Girardi pointed out it's the first time the Yankees have built from within since the 1996-97 birth of the Core Four. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada are gone to Monument Park now but there are new heroes in the Bronx.

"We have a really good group of young players. Again," Girardi said, with pointed emphasis on the last word.

The Yankees haven't won a playoff game since beating the Orioles in Game Five of the 2012 division series. They were swept by the Tigers in the ALCS that year and blanked in the AL wild-card game by the Astros two years ago. In 2013, 2014 and 2016, they didn't qualify.

It's not the Horace Clarke era but over the last 25 years, this has been the Bombers' driest stretch. Still, the records in those three non-playoff years were hardly terrible as the Yankees went 85-77 in '13 and 84-78 in both '14 and '16.

"A lot of people thought this would be a rebuilding season with a lot of young guys," said outfielder Brett Gardner, the lone position player still here from the 2009 World Series champions. "I don't think many people outside of our room in Tampa in spring training thought we would be here. It's really special."

"This is just my second postseason in 10 years," added third baseman Chase Headley. "So I'm enjoying it. Any time you have a chance to get in, you celebrate."

This has been a season fraught with challenges. There were injuries, notably the five-month struggle Bird had with his ankle. CC Sabathia keeps battling knee trouble and several others players were banged up. There were horrid slumps by Masahiro Tanaka, Chapman and setup man Dellin Betances. Judge was terrible in the month after the All-Star Home Run Derby

The Yankees were 38-23 on June 12 before going 32-39 over their next 71 games. But they've been dynamite in September, with a 15-6 mark that's second in the bigs to the Indians' ridiculous 21-2. That's called a finishing kick.

The Yankees figure to walk into a hornet's next in Sunday's series finale. It's the Blue Jays' final home game of a disappointing season, with standout Marcus Stroman on the mound. And the atmosphere figures to be super-charged because it will likely be Jose Bautista's final game in Toronto.

The iconic Toronto slugger is batting .201 after an 0-for-4 day and his $17 million option is almost certainly going to be declined. The standing ovations will be flying his way Sunday as memories of the 2015 playoff Bat Flip home run will be everywhere.

The Yankees, meanwhile, hope to forge their own memories in October of 2017. As Girardi's chat with reporters in his office wrapped up, he was asked how he managed to avoid the sprays that ambushed several members of the media.

The manager couldn't help but smile while revealing how he was wearing dry clothes.

"I changed because it was cold," Girardi said of the bubbly. "They should keep it warm."

There wasn't one ounce of complaint in his voice.

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