Yankees relievers carry team to playoffs

NEW YORK -- In the marathon that is a 162-game Major League Baseball regular season, a team is bound to play a few bizarre ones.

The Wednesday afternoon opener of a day-night doubleheader between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays was among the most bizarre -- and the most memorable -- of the past six months.

And after nine innings, and eight -- yes, eight -- Yankees pitchers, the home team had clinched a spot in the postseason for the 45th time in franchise history, courtesy of a come-from-behind 4-2 victory.

"It's the first step of three that you want to accomplish in the regular season," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The first one is to get in [the playoffs], the second one is to win your division, and the third one is to have home-field advantage throughout. It's the first step, and you've got a shot now."

Some usual suspects delivered the final blows -- Robinson Cano hit the game-winning two-run double in the eighth inning, and Mariano Rivera finished it off with his 44th save of the season in the ninth. But the real heroes on this afternoon were the magnificent seven -- the pitchers who preceded Rivera on the mound.

The day began with scheduled starter Phil Hughes scratched because of back spasms. Enter rookie Hector Noesi, making his first major league start after 28 relief appearances on the year. Girardi expected Noesi to throw between 50 and 60 pitches. He ended up with 55, allowing two runs on four hits -- but that only got him through 2 2/3, with the Yankees trailing 2-1.

What happened from there was a patchwork parade of pinstriped spare parts. With Rays starter James Shields shutting out the Yanks after a lone run in the first, and a second game looming at 7:05 p.m., Girardi elected to save David Robertson and Rafael Soriano, his primary setup men for Rivera.

Instead, 42,755 fans saw Raul Valdes take the ball, followed by George Kontos, Aaron Laffey, Cory Wade, Boone Logan and Luis Ayala -- not exactly an All-Star assortment. Only Logan and Ayala were on the Yankees' Opening Day roster.

Yet each of them recorded between two and four outs on the day. And more importantly, none of them allowed a single Tampa Bay Ray to cross home plate.

"The pitching was wonderful," said Girardi, who couldn't even recall the number of pitchers he used, or the order in which he used them, after the game. "The bullpen did a tremendous job, getting the outs. They had some base runners, but our guys got big outs when they needed them."

It looked like all of their efforts would go for naught, as the Yankees continued to trail heading into the bottom of the eighth. But then Eduardo Nunez led the frame off with a game-tying homer to left field. And four batters later, Cano had put the Yankees on top for good, as the team clinched at a minimum the American League wild card.

Ayala got credit for the win, but every single one of these pitchers deserved credit. It was only the second time in franchise history that the Yankees used eight pitchers in a nine-inning game, and the first time they'd won under those circumstances. "Before the game, nobody knows who's gonna pitch -- all the bullpen guys gotta be ready to get in," Ayala said. "It's a great feeling, and a great support to the 'pen because we saved some arms for the second game."

The Yankees' relief corps has been decimated by injuries this season. Lefties Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte never threw a single pitch due to injury. Joba Chamberlain went down in early June. Even Soriano spent a good chunk of the season on the disabled list.

Yet this Yankees team has been able to piece things together, somehow -- and no better than on the day they clinched a playoff spot.

Many of the pitchers who appeared for the Yankees on Wednesday afternoon will not be on the postseason roster. Heck, some of them might never appear in a game for the Yankees again.

But whatever the future holds for these seven men, they'll all be able to say one thing. On the day the 2011 New York Yankees punched their ticket to October, they were on the mound -- and they got the job done.