ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Nothing comes easy for the New York Yankees these days, not even when they take a six-run lead into the bottom of the ninth inning with CC Sabathia still on the mound and David Robertson and Mariano Rivera fresh and rested in their bullpen.
It was the kind of showdown baseball fans would pay to see any day of the week, Pujols vs. Rivera. And the kind of showdown at least one of the teams on the field would have paid to avoid.
But here it was, and the outcome of the duel would determine whether the Yankees would be flying home from the West Coast on Celebration Airlines or JetGloom.
Three pitches later and it was over, and you could feel the collective sigh of relief all the way from Disneyland to Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had finally won a game. "We really needed this one," was the message from a relieved postgame clubhouse.
After being swept by the Oakland Athletics and beaten in the first two games by the struggling Angels, this one felt like more than a single ballgame. It made a road trip that ended 4-6 feel more like 6-4, or even 10-0.
"We've been struggling a little bit," said Sabathia, in an overwhelming understatement, "so it feels good to get a win and go home and have the off-day and try to start fresh on Tuesday."
Never mind that Rivera came within one bad pitch of blowing it, or that a tack-on run that came via a Vernon Wells sacrifice fly in the eighth inning turned out to be the difference between an uplifting win and what would have no doubt been a crushing defeat.
"We won, so we don't even have to think about that now," Robertson said. "But it doesn't matter how we did it, we got a win. Nothing is easy in this league."
Certainly not for this team, which after playing so well for all of April and half of May has been spiraling.
And this win came courtesy of what hitting coach Kevin Long inelegantly termed "the B-squad" after Saturday night's ugly 6-2 defeat, all the runs being driven in by Travis Hafner, who came into the game 0-for-his-last-23; Lyle Overbay, who was 0-for-10 on the road trip; Jayson Nix and Wells, who had had all of two RBI in the entire month up to this point.
Meanwhile, much of what is left of the "A-squad," including Robinson Cano, Robertson and Rivera, either did nothing to help or, in the case of the two relievers, did plenty to make the game much too close for comfort.
"It probably would have been better if we won 6-0," Robertson said. "But we still won. A win is a win."
For eight innings and two batters, this seemed destined to be a surprisingly routine victory for a team mired in an apparent death spiral.
Still, despite their offensive futility and the news that Mark Teixeira would be out indefinitely again with a recurrence of the wrist injury that had already cost him 53 games, the Yankees were in high spirits before the game. A group of relief pitchers sat on the clubhouse couch laughing at the Jim Carrey comedy "Dumb and Dumber," and a larger group hung out in the players' lounge singing along to Afroman's novelty hit.
But when the game started, it appeared this one would turn out to be another familiar disaster. The Yankees got their first two hitters to second and third with none out for Cano, who struck out, and had the bases loaded with one out for Wells, who promptly tapped into an inning-ending double play.
"We've been pressing a lot and you could tell a little bit," Overbay said. "The quality at-bats weren't there. We're striking out, popping it up, not giving ourselves a chance."
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"We had a good opportunity there, and you obviously want to cash in one or two there, at least," Hafner said. "So that was frustrating and then it came up again in the third inning, and you can't let those go by. If you do, it could obviously be a little bit different game."
But this was a different inning, the inning New York had been waiting for all week. Once again, the Yankees got their first two batters on base, then watched with increasing consternation as Ichiro Suzuki struck out and Cano flied out to left, too shallow for Brett Gardner to try to score. When the count went to 1-2 on Hafner, it looked like another epic RISP fail was about to occur.
But Hafner got what he called a "backdoor slider" from Jered Weaver, and sent it over the center-field fence for a three-run homer, his first home run since June 5. It was also the first time the Yankees had scored more than two runs in a game since Tuesday in Oakland.
When they tacked on two more, on Overbay's double and Nix's single, it appeared that the breakout game Long and Joe Girardi had been predicting had finally arrived.
"It was big for us," Hafner said of that third inning. "Guys definitely loosened up after that. Everybody was pretty pumped up."
Meanwhile, Sabathia, who had a poor outing against the A's on Tuesday, was rolling along, allowing just four hits through eight innings, one of them an infield single. He had used up just 99 bullets and was primed to throw a complete-game shutout.
But after he allowed a leadoff double to Mike Trout and walked Pujols, Girardi came out to collect him, much to Sabathia’s disgust; he pumped his fist in frustration as he left the mound.
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"The frustration I showed walking off the mound was just all toward myself," Sabathia said. "I was just more frustrated with leaving the runners on base. Joe has a job and he does it pretty good of knowing when guys are done and taking guys out, so I had no gripes with him."
Girardi went first to Robertson, who allowed an RBI single to Mark Trumbo, struck out Howie Kendrick, and walked pinch hitter J.B. Shuck before what seemed like a certain day off for Rivera suddenly became a work day.
"You never know," Rivera said. "Things happen quick in baseball, so you just have to be ready."
Rivera got Erick Aybar to ground to first, but the out scored the Angels' second run of the inning. Then Alberto Callaspo singled in two more. Pinch hitter Brad Hawpe singled in front of Wells, and Peter Bourjos dumped another one into left to cut the lead to 6-5. When Rivera walked Trout in his second at-bat of the inning, a buzz ran through Angel Stadium, because Pujols -- who, incredibly, had only faced Rivera once previously in his career -- was coming to the plate with the bases loaded.
"Tying run, go-ahead run, that's what everybody comes and pays for," Overbay said.
"I don't worry about that," Rivera said. "That wasn't even crossing my mind. I'm just trying to get him out as soon as possible."
And he did, on three sinkers -- "He was looking for my cutter," Rivera said -- and suddenly the Yankees had something they had not had in a full week. A win.
"It was a little more exciting than we wanted it," Girardi said. "But it makes a huge difference. A win going into an off-day is important and now we need a good homestand."
It wasn't pretty and it certainly wasn't easy, but it was welcome.
And as most Yankee wins are going to need to be the rest of the way, it came courtesy of the B-squad, a group of castoffs and retreads who don't mind being referred to as such.
As long as the B stands for bats.