NEW YORK -- Brett Gardner slammed into the left-field wall as he caught Justin Smoak's bases-loaded drive, raising both hands and flipping the ball into the air as the Yankees celebrated a wild 7-6 victory over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.
Gardner's highlight-reel play allowed the Yankees to escape a stressful ninth inning after Toronto scored twice on Dellin Betances, who threw a season-high 40 pitches as he worked his third consecutive game. Blake Parker recorded the final two outs to pick up his first Yankees save and the second of his career.
"That game was back and forth at the end, and some guys came through with big at-bats," Gardner said. "Guys came through in some big spots. I was excited, man. Every game at this point is big, especially the ones you have a chance to win that you're supposed to win. It was a big win tonight."
New York remained 3 1/2 games back for the second American League Wild Card, but improbably closed within 4 1/2 games of the American League East lead. First-place Toronto also has Boston and Baltimore looking to knock it off the top spot. Didi Gregorius' clutch triple, Starlin Castro's sacrifice fly and Chase Headley's crucial two-run homer proved to be the difference for the Yanks in a four-run eighth inning.
"We're trying to get in the playoffs," Headley said. "However that happens, obviously we haven't given up on the division, but we've just got to continue to win games and give ourselves a chance to do either. First things first is to hopefully track down the Wild Card stuff, but if we can keep going and take the East, that would be a bonus."
Smoak thought he added another to the list of home runs as well, but on this night it ended up being all about Gardner.
"I feel like I hit it decent -- I barreled it -- thought it had a chance, and Gardner made a great play on it to come up with it right there," Smoak said.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Gardner's grab: The Blue Jays had one last rally up their sleeve in a contest that saw four lead changes. Betances walked the first two batters he faced before Encarnacion's infield single cut the lead to two. Melvin Upton Jr.'s infield single brought the Blue Jays within one and set the table for Pillar, but Parker struck him out looking, and Smoak hit a deep fly ball to left that Gardner brought in. More >
"As soon as he jumped up, I saw it went in his glove," Gregorius said. "Everybody started jumping. It was an exciting feeling. I felt like we won the World Series right there."
Pillar of strength: Toronto was in serious trouble after it coughed up a one-run lead in the seventh inning, but Pillar got it back in the eighth. With two outs, Troy Tulowitzki started the rally with a single up the middle and pinch-hitter Upton followed with a walk. That put a pair of runners on base for Pillar, who came through with a two-run double off the wall in left-center field. Pillar is batting .326 (31-for-95) with runners in scoring position, which leads the team for players with a minimum of 70 at-bats. The lead proved to be short-lived as the Yankees bounced right back in the bottom half of the frame.
"We do that all the time," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said about the late rally. "A couple spots you add one here or there and keep a run off the board it might be different. But they battled. They always battle."
Austin powers one: Austin showed off his plus power in a big spot, turning around Sanchez's fastball and belting it to the bleachers in right field for a two-out, two-run blast that gave the Yankees their first lead of the evening. Statcast™ estimated Austin's blast at 425 feet, with an exit velocity of 109 mph. Austin was the first Yankee to homer on his birthday since Alex Rodriguez, who did it last year, and the first Yankees rookie to do so since Eduardo Nunez in 2011. More >
"That's what I've been doing all year and that's what my approach has been," Austin said. "The at-bat before didn't go over so well, but that one, I got a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it."
Two timing: The Yankees turned a key 3-6-1 double play to escape a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning, as Adam Warren got Smoak to chop a ground ball to Austin. The throw was whipped to shortstop Gregorius, who stayed in on a slide from Pillar and sent the ball back to Warren covering first base. The Yanks used three pitchers in the inning, with Warren following Cessa and James Pazos. Warren worked 2 1/3 strong innings of one-hit ball before Yankees manager Joe Girardi played matchups in the eighth, opening the door for Toronto to briefly reclaim the lead.
"It's one game, but games like these feel like they mean a little more," Warren said. "They get a little momentum going, especially when you get all these guys contributing like they did, it builds a lot of confidence in the locker room. It's a big win for us."
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Encarnacion set a career high in RBIs when he picked up No. 112 on the season with his infield single during the ninth inning. The veteran slugger's previous high came last year when he finished with 111.
WHAT'S NEXT Blue Jays: Right-hander Marcus Stroman (9-6, 4.58 ERA) will take the mound when the Blue Jays close out their three-game series vs. the Yankees on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. Stroman has faced New York once this season and allowed just two runs over eight innings. He has surrendered eight earned runs over his last 12 innings overall. First pitch is 7:05 p.m. ET.
Yankees: The Yankees plan to give the ball to right-hander Bryan Mitchell, who will be making his first big league start of the season after sustaining a fractured left big toe this spring. Mitchell was 0-2 with a 6.37 ERA in 20 appearances (two starts) for New York last year.