NEW YORK -- Expertly commanding a lethal splitter that vanished from the strike zone all afternoon, Masahiro Tanaka recorded a career-high 15 strikeouts in a brilliant seven-inning performance that led the Yankees to their 90th win of the season, a 4-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Friday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
With the victory, the Yankees maintained some hope of overtaking the Red Sox in the American League East race, moving to within 2 games of first place. The Yankees need to win their final two games while the Red Sox lose their final two games to force a tiebreaker game Monday in New York.
"We're trying to prepare and we don't know exactly what we're preparing for," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who indicated Luis Severino could pitch a potential Game 163. "We came into this week five games back with seven to go. We're still alive to win the division."
Tanaka retired the first 14 men he faced before Ezequiel Carrera's infield single in the fifth inning, one of just three hits Tanaka permitted as he tuned up for a potential outing in the postseason. Tanaka has picked up victories in five of his last seven starts, completing the year 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 30 games.
"It's pretty obvious that there were a lot of ups and downs this season," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I really want to take this year as sort of a learning process. Hopefully in the future when I look back, I can look back at this year as a year that [had] a lot of struggles, but I was able to learn a lot from it."
The 15 strikeouts tied the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg (May 27 vs. San Diego) for the most in any Major League game this season, and tied Yu Darvish's big league mark -- set in 2013 -- for the most strikeouts in a single game by a Japanese pitcher.
"He's always tough on us," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "He was as good as you can be today. He was sticking that fastball good and then you can't pick up that split. It comes in at the same height and then, boom, just drops. He was really good."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Heck of a try: Castro made a pair of excellent defensive efforts early in the game, helping Tanaka cruise. The second baseman smothered a Michael Saunders grounder in the second inning and whipped the throw to first base, helping begin Tanaka's string of 14 straight Blue Jays retired. Castro also had his hands on Carrera's grounder up the middle in the fifth inning, but Carrera legged out an infield single to spoil the budding perfect-game bid.
"Going into the game, I knew that I needed to be aggressive," Tanaka said. "I had that plan and went into the game and it turned out the way it did."
Bird is back: Bird was the Yankees' most impressive hitter this spring before injuries derailed his season, but the sweet-swinging lefty appears to be rounding back into form just in time for the most meaningful games of the year. Bird cracked a first-inning sacrifice fly and rapped a fourth-inning double against Biagini before pelting the right-field wall with a well-struck RBI single in the sixth inning.
He is the fourth Yankee ever to collect at least one extra-base hit and one RBI in seven straight games, joining Don Mattingly (1987), Babe Ruth (1920) and Alex Rodriguez (2007).
"I always enjoy playing. I always do," Bird said. "It's great being back and settling in and being comfortable. Just being part of this team, because it's such a fun team to be on. We've got a great group. You can see it watching, I'm sure. Just being part of it is great."
"I wasn't really listening, so I can't remember what he said. … No, he just wanted me to pick up the tempo a little bit." -- Biagini, jokingly replying to being asked what Gibbons said to him during a rare first-inning visit to the mound. Toronto's righty allowed two runs in the first, but then only one more over the next four innings.
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The 18 strikeouts matched the Blue Jays' all-time single-game franchise record for a nine-inning game. Toronto struck out 18 times vs. Tampa Bay on Aug. 28, 2011, and July 26, 1989, at Texas. They also tied a Yankees franchise record, done four times, last on May 10, 2015, vs. Baltimore.
ALL RISE, ALL EXHALE
Aaron Judge has hit in a career-high 12 straight games and reached base in 24 straight, but the Yankees endured a scare in the third inning when Judge appeared to grimace after stepping awkwardly on the first base bag following a groundout to shortstop.
"We had some concern. He's fine," Girardi said. "It ended up being nothing."
WHAT'S NEXT Blue Jays: Right-hander Marcus Stroman will take the mound for Toronto when this series continues on Saturday at 1:05 p.m. ET. Stroman is three innings shy of reaching 200 for the second consecutive year and he also has an outside shot of finishing the year with an ERA under 3.00. Stroman has a 3.06 ERA, and five or more scoreless innings would get him into the twos.
Yankees: Left-hander Jaime Garcia (1-3, 4.70 ERA in AL) will look to finish his regular season on a strong note as he makes his ninth start as a Yankee on Saturday at 1:05 p.m. ET. Garcia lasted just 2 1/3 innings in a Sept. 24 loss at Rogers Centre, allowing five runs.