NEW YORK -- When the Yankees gathered seven months ago, Aaron Boone padded to the center of their clubhouse carpet and outlined his expectations for the season ahead. Their first objective would be to secure the American League East title, the manager instructed, and then to focus on bringing home the 28th World Series championship in franchise history.
Boone could not have imagined the obstacles his club would need to overcome, their depth tested to incomprehensible levels when a Major League-record 30 players landed on the injured list. Yet the Yankees popped corks as division champions for the first time since 2012, defeating the Angels, 9-1, on Thursday for their 100th victory of the season.
“It’s important for us to realize how special this is and how special of an accomplishment this is, but at the same time, we've got a lot of work left to go,” Brett Gardner said. “We've got a lot of baseball left to play. We're going to continue to do that and feel great about the team that we've had all year and the guys we have in this room. Hopefully it is the beginning of something special.”
DJ LeMahieu and Gardner homered to support Masahiro Tanaka’s sterling effort, powering the Bombers’ fog-machine and strobe-light celebration one day after they spent a late evening in the back of their clubhouse, waiting to see if the Dodgers could take care of business against the Rays. Tampa Bay’s extra-inning victory kept the bubbly on ice, but LeMahieu’s three-run, second-inning homer off Andrew Heaney set the clinch into motion.
“It felt like a big blow, and it was like, ‘All right, take it from here, Masa,’” Boone said. “It was just a good all-around night for us. No surprise that DJ would be the guy that gets it rolling in a big way. We had a feeling that he would really love hitting here, and as we’ve seen a lot this year, he drove that ball out to right-center in a big spot.”
“I've had more fun this year playing baseball than I ever have,” said Gardner, who added a two-run double in the sixth. “It's been a lot of fun to be part of such a special team. We've got a lot of work left and a long way to go to get to where we want to be.”
With the victory, the Yankees punched their 21st postseason ticket in the last 25 seasons (since 1995), with the club logging consecutive 100-win seasons for the first time since 2002-04.
“You've got a team full of savages,” Aaron Judge said. “When you've got a team of guys that come ready to play every single day and are hungry and excited to be here, it makes for a great environment like this. Playing in front of these fans, day in and day out, they have our back. It's been one heck of a season.”
A likely front-runner for the AL Manager of the Year Award, Boone is the first manager in Major League history to win at least 100 games in each of his first two seasons. Boone addressed his club briefly before they splashed in the clubhouse, telling them not to take their accomplishment for granted.
“One of the things that we talked about in Spring Training was winning the division, and that’s a reality now,” Boone said. “You think of a lot of people that contributed to this. Obviously we have bigger goals, but this is an important step and I’m just proud of the guys and so many people – some that aren’t even in that room right now – that have contributed to us being here.”
As the Yankees face the prospect of a postseason that does not include 18-game winner Domingo Germán, Tanaka eased those concerns, rebounding from a pair of shaky outings to limit the Angels to Kole Calhoun’s solo home run among four hits in a seven-inning effort.
“I feel like Masa’s in a pretty good place right now,” Boone said. “I feel like his splitter was pretty good. A big performance by him to go out and really take control of the game. His split was a real factor. I thought it was pretty sharp.”
Tanaka has not allowed a walk in his last three starts, his longest streak of the season. The effort snapped a string of eight consecutive Yankees starts of five innings or fewer, and Tanaka wrapped his regular season with an 8-3 record and 3.10 ERA in 16 starts at home.
“Tanaka did what he always does. He doesn’t give in,” Angels manager Brad Ausmus said. “He takes advantage of hitters’ aggressiveness. You have to wait him out offensively, but it’s hard to do.”
Not done yet
While the Yankees have secured the AL East for the 19th time since divisional play began in 1969, they will continue to pursue the top record in the AL, battling the Astros (100-53) for home-field advantage. Houston was idle Thursday.
“We want to keep racking up wins,” Boone said. “That’s the goal. We’ll strike that balance between making sure we take care of our guys, especially some of our guys that are nicked up. But we’re coming to try to win these games.”