The dithering in clinching a 15th post-season berth in 16 seasons is over for the New York Yankees, and they're now left with four games to set themselves up for a run at a 28th World Series championship.
Hulking ace CC Sabathia settled down a team that had lost five of its past six games with 8 1-3 dominant innings, and the Bronx Bombers scratched out three runs off Toronto Blue Jays phenom Kyle Drabek before breaking things open in a 6-1 victory Tuesday night.
The defending champions (94-64) remained a half-game behind the American League East-leading Tampa Bay Rays (94-63), but guaranteed themselves at least the wild card.
"This was the first step, getting in, now we've got a chance to defend our title," Sabathia said amid a wild celebration in the Yankees clubhouse.
"I feel like last year everything came a little easy. This year we've been grinding and I think that makes for a lot of character on the team. Hopefully it will help us in the playoffs."
The Yankees booked their spot before a crowd of 18,193 hopeful that one day soon their Blue Jays (81-75) will be celebrating a similar achievement.
"It's really just the first step, no one in here is satisfied with the season, everyone knows it's World Series championship or bust," said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. "This year has been a struggle, we have four really good teams in this division.
"Toronto, put them in another division in baseball and they might win it, it's that good of a team, so if you make the playoffs in this division, you deserve it."
Travis Snider provided the lone moment of joy for the home fans with a solo shot that was his team's 244th homer of the season, matching the franchise record established in 2000. But Cito Gaston, managing his penultimate home game before his retirement, had his night cut short when home-plate umpire Mark Carlson ejected him in the sixth inning for arguing an interference call.
He probably wouldn't have liked watching how things finished up, as Sabathia (21-7) ate up his lineup while the Yankees order added-on against his bullpen.
"I don't want talk about it, but I didn't say anything to get run out of the game, trust me," Gaston said. "That's the end of that. I've said a lot worse."
Sabathia, the six-foot-seven, 290-pound left-hander, has been a steadying force in the New York rotation of late and has been particularly valuable with A.J. Burnett struggling badly and Andy Pettitte working his way back from a groin strain.
Pettitte's scheduled start Wednesday was pushed back to the weekend in Boston.
Add in that Phil Hughes has logged far more innings than planned and that Javier Vazquez may not even make the post-season roster, it's clear the Yankees are struggling to the finish line. With the pressure off, they can now sort out their rotation in the coming days with the playoffs in mind and nothing else.
"I've got to make sure our guys are strong," said manager Joe Girardi. "That's the first thing. I still want our division and I still want homefield advantage but I can see there's some tired bodies out there, there really is. ...
"I've got to pick my spots to rest guys. You think about Derek Jeter and Robbie Cano, they've played the last 12 days in a row. Alex [Rodriguez] has played the last nine in a row."
Drabek (0-3), making his third and final start in a brief September audition, acquitted himself well and was unlucky to have surrendered three runs in his six innings.
"I think he's got a chance to be a one or two starter once he learns how to really use that sinker that he has," Gaston said. "He throws 95-96 but he has that really good sinker. His breaking ball was so good tonight nobody could catch it. He's just going to get better."
A wild pitch that struck out Nick Swisher allowed Derek Jeter to move into scoring position in the first, and eventually come in on an Rodriguez sacrifice fly to make it 1-0.
The Yankees went up 2-0 in the third when another wild pitch again allowed Jeter to move to second and after a Swisher sacrifice bunt, score on Teixeira's sacrifice fly.
After Snider's milestone homer in the third cut into the lead, the Yankees extended the gap in the fifth on a controversial fielder's choice by Jeter. Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion fielded his chopper and threw home to try and cut down Brett Gardner, who slid around catcher John Buck's tag to be called safe.
Gaston came out to argue vehemently with Carlson, who kept his patience and didn't run the manager. That patience, however, disappeared quickly in the sixth, when J.P. Arencibia was called out for interference after Sabathia fielded his grounder and hit the runner trying to throw to first.
Gaston popped out immediately — with the crowd chanting "Cito, Cito" — and was tossed as he was heading back to the dugout. It was Gaston's third ejection of the season, and came one day before a planned "Thank You Cito" night to fete him Wednesday.
The Yankees added two more in the eighth on Rodriguez's bases-loaded walk and a Robinson Cano sacrifice fly, and another in the ninth on Swisher's RBI groundout.
Sabathia was pulled with two on and one out in the ninth, having allowed three hits and two walks while striking out eight. Mariano Rivera got the final two outs, leading to business-as-usual handshakes on the field afterwards.