On brink of disaster, Heathcott delivers Yankees' 'biggest win of the year'

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This was well on its way to being the worst Yankees loss of the season, the one that would have set them on a collision course with a one-game wild-card playoff and greased the skids for a one-game postseason exit, the baseball equivalent of a Broadway show that closes on opening night.

It had taken the Yankees more than seven innings to get their first base hit, and no sooner had they gotten a second one, a solid single from pinch hitter Dustin Ackley leading off the ninth inning, it was all wiped out by a double-play grounder from Jacoby Ellsbury, who seems to have not gotten a hit in months.

There were two outs, no one on base and a one-run deficit that, even against a club as hopeless as the Tampa Bay Rays, looked more like a dozen.

This was going to be the crusher, all right, a 1-0 loss on a night when CC Sabathia pitched as if it were 2009 again. But the Yankees' offense hit as if it were 2014, nearly ending in a loss that would have dropped the Bombers a daunting four games back of the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East with 19 games to play.

But then Brett Gardner, who had committed a base-running gaffe two innings earlier that might have cost the Yankees a run, drew a walk. With Alex Rodriguez batting, Gardner stole second.

And then A-Rod, at 40 years old the elder statesman of the team, roped one into right-center to tie the game.

OK, so at least they wouldn’t be shut out.

With Chris Young running for A-Rod at second, the Rays did the prudent thing. They intentionally walked Brian McCann to get to Slade Heathcott, a rookie outfielder who had only been inserted into the game an inning earlier, an oft-injured player who had spent more than two months on the disabled list with a quad strain and an inexperienced hitter who had not seen a big league pitch in nearly four months.

So, of course, on the first pitch he saw from Rays closer Brad Boxberger, Heathcott shot one the other way, a line drive that looped toward the left-field foul pole and found its way into the seats.

Now, not only would the Yankees not be shut out. Incredibly, they would not even lose.

That’s how a baseball season can change in the time it takes to throw five pitches.

“Yeah, it changes quickly," a dazed-looking Joe Girardi said after the Yankees had completed an improbable 4-1 victory over the Rays on Monday night at Tropicana Field. “That’s the thing about this game. Emotions can change quickly."

So can games, seasons and the pre-written narratives of sportswriters, fans and even players.

Just 48 hours ago, after suffering a humiliating doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays, it looked as if the Yankees would have to settle for the wild card and like it.

But then came a dignity-salvaging 5-0 win in the finale of that series on Sunday.

And what might turn out to be a season-salvaging win on Monday.

“That’s a big, signature Yankee moment for [Heathcott]," Rodriguez said. “It’s a moment he’ll never forget."

And possibly a moment no one on the Yankee side of the field will ever forget, depending upon what happens from this point on.

It’s easy to overstate the importance of any particular win in the 162-game marathon that is a major league baseball season.

But it’s impossible to overstate the drama of certain moments, and the moment Heathcott connected with Boxberger’s pitch -- a little bit up, a little bit out over the plate and a mouth-watering 90 mph -- was certainly one of those.

“Just awesome," said Heathcott, who looks like an MMA fighter and talks like an altar boy. “I’m on cloud nine."

He went up there, he said, looking fastball for a couple of reasons: Having not played in a major league game since May 27, and never against Tampa Bay, Heathcott really didn’t know what else to look for. And besides, he knew it would be a lot easier to hit than Boxberger’s changeup, which had accounted for many of his 34 saves and 69 strikeouts in 54 innings.

“It’s probably an advantage that he hasn’t seen [Boxberger]," said Gardner, one of the first Yankees out of the dugout to greet Heathcott as he crossed the plate. “Because he’s got a really, really, really good changeup, and Slade didn’t seem too concerned about that."

“I was just trying to pretend that this game is the same everywhere I play," Heathcott said. “Stay calm, get a good pitch to hit and hit it. That's all you can do."

Still, he admitted, “I was trying to crush a ball."

Which he did, and in doing so, reversed a game that might have crushed a season.

Heathcott’s home run salvaged what should have been a most encouraging effort from Sabathia, who, in his second start since coming off the disabled list with inflammation in his rapidly degenerating right knee, pitched Rays starter Erasmo Ramirez -- who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning -- to a virtual stalemate, holding the Rays scoreless on three hits, two of them infield singles, over 6 2/3 innings.

Sabathia attributed his improvement to the two-week rest afforded by his DL stint and a new, heavier knee brace that allows him to plant his right leg without fear or, he said, pain.

“To me, CC was maybe the most encouraging part of the whole night," Rodriguez said. “He threw the ball as well as he’s thrown it all year. Four pitches for strikes, and it’s not just about speed, it’s throwing the ball with conviction."

That performance, however, was on the verge of going to waste, as was the Yankees’ opportunity to rack up some easy wins here before heading into the lion’s den of three games at Citi Field with the National League East-leading Mets over the weekend, followed immediately by three truly crucial games with the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre next week.

But in the space of five pitches, the looming disaster turned into a rousing victory, and suddenly, anything seems possible over the final three weeks of the season.

“That’s probably the most excited we’ve been all year," Gardner said.

“I think if you just look at the way our dugout reacted, it was definitely our biggest hit of the season," Sabathia said.

“No question, today is probably the biggest game of the year," Rodriguez said. “Hopefully 24 hours from now I'll stand right here and say it again, that this is the biggest win of the year. That’s kind of the point we’re at right now.”

At a point, it looked as if the Yankees had no chance of reaching just five pitches before Slade Heathcott came to bat. Now, who knows what heights they can yet reach or how far they can go?