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The Strike Zone

Rays hold onto playoff spot while Yanks beat O's but lose Gardner in wild game

Mariano Rivera and the Yanks got a win, but remain one game behind the Rays.  (Rob Carr/Getty Images)Mariano Rivera and the Yanks got a win, but remain one game behind the Rays. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

With their lead over the Yankees for the American League's final wild-card spot down to one game, the Rays pulled out a 4-3 win over the Red Sox Thursday night to keep the Yankees at bay for another day. The Yankees, meanwhile, survived an eighth-inning implosion by David Robertson to pull out a 6-5 win in Baltimore over the fellow wild-card contending Orioles. However, in the very first at-bat of that game, the Yankees suffered yet another potentially significant injury as center fielder and leadoff man Brett Gardner strained his left oblique on a check swing on strike three and immediately took himself out of the game.

Gardner will have an MRI in New York on Friday before joining the team in Boston for their weekend set against the Red Sox, but he seems unlikely to play in the series. He could very well miss the remainder of the regular season given that there are just 16 days remaining and oblique injuries typically take at least two weeks to heal.

The Yankees are better equipped to absorb Gardner's injury than they were earlier in the season, before Curtis Granderson's return from the disabled list and the acquisition of Alfonso Soriano -- who will now be locked into center and left fields, respectively, until Gardner's return -- but if Gardner is out for an extended period of time, it will nonetheless be a significant setback for New York.

Along with Robinson Cano, Gardner was one of just two Yankee hitters who had remained healthy and productive all season. Second on the team in Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement (third, behind Cano and Hiroki Kuroda if you include pitchers), Gardner had played in 145 of the Yankees' first 147 games, contributing elite defense in center field, 24 stolen bases, a major league leading 10 triples (tied with injured Pirate outfielder Starling Marte), and a 107 OPS+, a combination worth 4.2 wins above replacement per bWAR.

That's not a player that is easy to replace. Granderson represents a significant drop in the field, and with Gardner on the bench, the Yankees are likely to turn to Ichiro Suzuki as their leadoff hitter despite his .302 on-base percentage (Suzuki has led off 13 of the 15 games that Gardner hasn't this season). The loss of Gardner also limits Yankee manager Joe Girardi's ability to play matchups with his outfielders and designated hitters by the simple fact that, with Soriano, Granderson, and Suzuki as his starting trio, the only outfielders he'll have on the bench are righty Vernon Wells, who has hit .215/.257/.271 with one home run since May 15, and rookie Zoilo Almonte, who has a 75 OPS+ in 96 career plate appearances and, despite being a switch-hitter, has been awful as a right-handed hitter over the last two seasons.

The game in Baltimore was no less eventful after Gardner's injury. In the second inning, Yankee catcher Chris Stewart struck out on three pitches, one of which was ruled a ball (note home plate umpire putting out two fingers on the final pitch in the video embedded here). Thanks to what turned out to be a premeditated tandem start by Phil Hughes and David Huff (combined line: 6 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 4 K) and home runs by Mark Reynolds and Gardner's replacement Curtis Granderson, who did not start against lefty Wei-Yin Chen, the Yankees took a 5-2 lead into the eighth. However, David Robertson coughed up that lead by surrendering a game-tying three-run homer to Danny Valencia, and his performance would have been worse had this not happened to the first batter of the inning, Manny Machado:

[mlbvideo id="30559025" width="600" height="360" /]

Soriano's catch proved crucial as the Yankees rallied to take the lead back in the ninth thanks to a throwing error and wild pitch by Orioles closer Jim Johnson, the latter bringing home Brendan Ryan, who led off the inning with a single and was granted a reprieve at second base thanks to Johnson's other wild throw.

Mariano Rivera then came on to get the final three outs of the Yankees' 6-5 win, but even that, one of the most common events in baseball history, was unusual, as the official scorer decided that Robertson hadn't pitched well enough to win and thus gave Rivera not the save, but the win. That decision is in accordance with Rule 10.17 (c)*, but it robbed Rivera of his 652nd career save, altering a major league record in the process.

As for the Rays, they broke a 3-3 tie with the Red Sox when Evan Longoria and Wil Myers doubled off Rubby De La Rosa in the bottom of the eighth, giving Tampa Bay a one-run lead that Fernando Rodney, despite putting the go-ahead runs on base, nailed down in the top of the ninth. With that, the Rays remain in a playoff spot for another day, and given Gardner's injury and the passing of another day on the schedule, their chances of holding on to that spot have, even if only slightly, improved.

*"The official scorer shall not credit as the winning pitcher a relief pitcher who is ineffective in a brief appearance, when at least one succeeding relief pitcher pitches effectively in helping his team maintain its lead. In such a case, the official scorer shall credit as the winning pitcher the succeeding relief pitcher who was most effective, in the judgment of the official scorer."

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