Yankees can't gain ground, but show Toronto AL East is a two-horse race

ATLANTA -- It has pretty much been established by now that the Toronto Blue Jays will not lose another game this year, at least not to a team other than the New York Yankees, which pretty much requires that the Yankees not lose another game to any team other than the Blue Jays.

Which means, of course, that out of 162 games, the American League East race is likely to come down to the last seven meetings between those two teams, which will occur in the two-week period of Sept. 10-23.

The Yankees kept up their end of that rough bargain this weekend in Atlanta, sweeping a three-game series from a Atlanta Braves team that was hardly more competitive from one of the teams still alive in the Little League World Series.

Since the most prudent way to judge any victory is in relation to the quality of the opposition it was accomplished at the expense of, it would be foolish to turn cartwheels over the Yankees' offensive explosion this weekend, during which they scored 38 runs, the final 20 coming in Sunday's 20-6 victory.

After all, the Yankees had scored just 18 runs in their previous seven games, losing five of them, three to a last-place club (the Cleveland Indians). So what the offense did in Atlanta should be taken with a large block of salt.

But as manager Joe Girardi rightly pointed out, nothing motivates quite like success, and if the Yankees' hitters feel better about themselves after three games in Atlanta than they did after the preceding seven games in New York, so be it.

Because the manager knows as well as anyone that in order for the Yankees to continue to keep pace with the Blue Jays -- winners of 21 of 26 games since August 1 and current holders of a 1½-game lead in the division -- they must continue to believe they are capable of it, even if it seems as if they are treading water. After all, they came to Atlanta 1½ games back, did everything they needed to do and more, and are leaving here in exactly the same position.

It is now the manager's job to persuade his team that is actually good news, and certainly not cause for discouragement.

Asked if it was dispiriting to look up at the scoreboard every day and see the Blue Jays winning again -- they put 15 runs up on Detroit before the Yankees took the field on Saturday and were leading 4-0 on Sunday before a pitch was thrown at Turner Field -- Girardi said, "No, not necessarily. There’s still a lot of games to play. We play Toronto a lot of games. We know they're a good club and they're going to score a lot of runs. We’ve just got to take care of our own business."

That philosophy was echoed throughout the Yankees' clubhouse Sunday afternoon.

“It’s important. Every game that we’re playing now is important," said Chase Headley, who had three hits, a home run and an RBI. "Guys in here understand that there’s going to be the swings where you’re playing really well and things are going your way and times where things aren’t going your way. This is a confident group. I think we were confident before when we weren’t playing that good on the home stand. We were confident that we were going to regroup and play well."

No player could benefit from that form of positive thinking more than Stephen Drew, who had his best day of the season -- 4-for-4, a home run, a pair of walks, four RBIs and three runs scored -- and left a ballpark for the first time in 2015 with his batting average above .200.

"I’m not worried about [batting average]," he said. "I think just looking at my at-bats, and having good at-bats is a good day offensively for me. We’re here to win games. It’s getting to the end, and we know it. Every game we can win is huge."

They only get bigger from here. The Yankees got yet another win for Nathan Eovaldi, who once again reaped the rewards of ridiculous run support and eared his 14th victory despite lasting only five full innings, allowing five earned runs on eight hits. They got a big two-RBI single out of Alex Rodriguez, who came off the bench to hit for the pitcher when the Braves were threatening to make a game of it, sparking a nine-run seventh inning. They even got an RBI double out of reliever Branden Pinder, who had not swung at a live pitch since high school.

It may not have been the seventh game of the World Series -- hell, the Braves are hardly a major league team at this point in their existence -- but it was the kind of win in which the victors can persuade themselves they are better than they have looked recently or, in fact, really are.

But that is the kind of self-belief the Yankees will have to take with them to Boston for the next three games, and the kind of self-belief they will have to carry with them until Sept. 10, when the Blue Jays come to the Bronx for the first four of seven games that will decide a season.

"As we get closer to the end of the year, every win and every loss is going to be magnified from here on out," Girardi said. "Sure, we would have loved it if they lost a game or two, but all we can control is what we can do. We’re going to play them seven times before the end of the year and there’s a good chance that those seven games are going to have a pretty good impact on how things end up. It would have been great if they lost, but they didn't.”

And it would be foolish, and perhaps fatal, to assume that they will.

For these last 33 games, the Yankees must figure the Blue Jays will win them all.

All, except, for the seven games left between the two of them. Those are the games that will decide the fate of the 2015 Yankees, as long as they are able to keep pace.

Notes: Girardi said Mark Teixeira, hobbled by a bone bruise in his right shin, felt "a little better" Sunday, but doubted he would be able to play in Monday night's opener against the Red Sox in Boston. ... Girardi said A-Rod, who sat out all three games here but pinch-hit twice, would definitely play in Boston, although he did not specify DH or first base.