NEW YORK -- Neil Walker has gamely handled a multitude of requests from the Yankees this season, including time at three infield positions and unexpected pennant-race patrols in the outfield. His most enjoyable assignment may have come in the ninth inning on Tuesday, when the veteran came off the bench to fill the role of walk-off hero.
After Miguel Andujar and Aaron Hicks turned around a flat opening to the evening with a pair of two-run homers, Walker slugged the only pitch he saw from Dylan Covey over the wall in right field, rounding the bases to celebrate a 5-4 victory over the White Sox at Yankee Stadium.
"You do your homework downstairs with who you might be facing and try to get your time in the cage as much as you can," Walker said. "As a pinch-hitter, you try to assume that the first pitch you see is going to be the best pitch you see. You try to be aggressive, just try to be on time. If you can hit something with the barrel, that's obviously as much as you can ask for."
One night after manager Aaron Boone called his club out on its "sluggish" play, the Yankees overcame a four-run deficit to secure their ninth victory in 11 games. They remained 6 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the American League East after Boston defeated Miami on Tuesday. The walk-off hit was the fifth of Walker's career and his second as a Yankee. It also was the 80th walk-off homer hit in the Majors this year, equaling a record set in 2004.
"He's come up with some really big hits," Boone said. "I felt like we needed to give him a day, and he goes up there, one pitch and ends it. So he's been really valuable for us. Obviously, he's shown a little more defensive versatility than we expected -- and we needed it -- and we've seen the professional hitter that he is really reveal itself here, especially in the second half of the season."
The evening began on an embarrassing note for the Yankees, as the first play saw a routine throw clang off Greg Bird's glove at first base. Bird explained that he was breaking in some fresh leather, and he also mashed three balls with nothing to show for it. That frustration seemed to serve as a microcosm, as the Yanks' heavy bats had produced just one hit when Chicago knocked starter Lance Lynn out in the sixth.
"We've played a lot of baseball the last four weeks, there's no getting around that," Walker said. "Even with the two days off, you follow that up with a doubleheader a couple days later. So there's no doubt that we're grinding here. We're tired. But nights like tonight, we find ways to grind it out. The pitchers have done a great job keeping it close."
Avisail Garcia doubled home the first run for the White Sox in the fifth, and Lynn permitted a pair of two-out singles in the sixth before Jonathan Holder surrendered a run-scoring hit to Yolmer Sanchez. Nicky Delmonico padded Chicago's advantage with a two-run knock to make it 4-0, but Brett Gardner opened the home half of the sixth with a triple that reinvigorated the crowd of 40,015.
"Any time we've got one hit going into the sixth inning, the fans are a little fed up with us," Gardner said. "There's obviously not a whole lot of excitement. We just did a good job of grinding out at-bats and never giving up. It's never too late with this team."
"I just try to get on base and try to hit balls hard," Hicks said. "That's what I've been trying to do all season."
Holder worked 2 1/3 solid innings before Dellin Betances fired a perfect ninth inning, picking up the victory when Walker sealed the Yanks' seventh walk-off of the season.
"When we've had the injuries that we've had to deal with this year, a guy like that is really, really valuable," Gardner said. "He's just a true pro, the way he goes about his business. He comes ready to play every day and gets his work in. I've really enjoyed getting to know him and not just playing with him, but learning from him. He's been really valuable to our team."
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Hicks appeared to be irked when home-plate umpire Pat Hoberg signaled for a called strike on a 3-0 fastball in his eighth-inning at-bat, believing that the pitch had been inside. After fouling off the 3-1 pitch, Hicks wasn't complaining about the extended at-bat, tagging a 93.6-mph heater for his first game-tying home run since Aug. 17, 2015 (for the Twins at Yankee Stadium).
"He's really talented," Boone said. "I think that revealed itself last year when he came into his own at the big league level, and he's taken another big step this year. I think he's one of the really underrated players in our game today. He is a premium player playing a premium position."
Walker's pinch-hit walk-off homer was the first by a Yankees hitter since Brian McCann hit one in the 10th inning on Aug. 24, 2014, also against the White Sox (Jake Petricka). The Yankees have had just three such homers in the last 30 years; Jason Giambi had the other one on June 5, 2008, off the Blue Jays' B.J. Ryan.
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Bird said that the pocket of his regular glove was wearing thin during the Yankees' weekend series in Baltimore, so he was breaking in a fresh piece of leather in the first inning, when second baseman Ronald Torreyes' throw popped out. After the error, Bird said that he had someone in the clubhouse re-lace his old glove, playing the next eight innings without incident.
"Lance picked me up," Bird said. "I owe him a drink for sure, because that was a tough one."
Left-hander Carsten Sabathia will take the mound on Wednesday as the Yankees and White Sox conclude their three-game series at 7:05 p.m. ET at Yankee Stadium. Sabathia made a solid return from the disabled list his last time out, limiting the Orioles to two earned runs in a six-inning no-decision. Right-hander Reynaldo Lopez will make the start for Chicago.