NEW YORK, N.Y. - Covered in bubbly and wearing his new AL East champions hat, Derek Jeter sounded almost relieved after the New York Yankees ended a thrilling pennant race at the top of the league.
Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson each hit a pair of homers, powering the Yankees past the Boston Red Sox 14-2 on a raucous Wednesday night in the Bronx for their 13th East title in 17 years.
"This was difficult. Come into the last day of the season, nobody knows what's going on. We've been taking it one day at a time for quite some time," Jeter said. "It feels good."
In front of fans poised to party from the first pitch on the final night of the regular season, the Yankees completed a three-game sweep of the last-place Red Sox to win their second consecutive division crown. The championship was locked up by the seventh inning, when Baltimore's 4-1 loss at Tampa Bay went final and prompted a huge ovation from the 47,393 in attendance.
Alex Rodriguez stepped out of the batter's box, and several players high-fived and hugged in the dugout while coaches shook hands.
"This year we had to fight, scratch and claw," Nick Swisher said.
The subdued celebration didn't really start until Freddy Garcia struck Ivan De Jesus looking to end it. Players hugged and slapped fives on the field and put on their AL East champion shirts and hats as fans feted them with a standing ovation with "New York, New York," blaring over the loudspeakers. The team walked off the field to chants of "Let's go Yankees!"
"Now the real season starts," Jeter said.
Cano went 4 for 4 and tied a career high with six RBIs as New York (95-67) finished two games ahead of Baltimore and secured home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. The Yankees will open on the road Sunday against the winner of Friday's wild-card game between Baltimore and Texas.
"To have the best record and not know where you're going is strange," manager Joe Girardi said.
New York led the division by 10 games on July 18 but the pesky Orioles caught up on Sept. 4 and were tied with the Yankees after 10 different days in September. Many players credit Girardi with keeping the clubhouse calm during that stretch.
"He's very even-keeled," Granderson said. "You never see him get too excited or down."
The Yankees rode the long ball all season, and the four homers in the finale set a franchise record at 245.
Hiroki Koroda (16-11) shut Boston down with an encouraging performance after struggling through much of September. He allowed two runs and seven hits over seven innings.
With New York heading into the playoffs for the first time since 1981 without career saves leader Mariano Rivera — he tore a knee ligament shagging flies in May — the rout gave the Yankees a chance to rest Rafael Soriano, who threw 43 pitches over two innings of the 12-inning, 4-3 comeback win Tuesday night.
Bobby Valentine brought the lineup card out to the umpires for what might have been the final time as manager of the Red Sox, who finished last in the AL East at 69-93 in his first season leading the club. Boston, in the cellar for the first time in two decades, ended the year with eight straight losses, their longest skid since losing nine in a row in 2001. The Red Sox lost 26 off their last 33 games.
"Very disappointing season. Extremely disappointing," Valentine said.
Granderson hit his career-best 42nd homer in the second, a three-run shot off Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-7), making his first start since Sept. 19. Cano then connected in the third for a 5-1 lead.
One batter later Matsuzaka was finished, most likely ending his six-year career with Boston. The Red Sox paid $51.1 million to win the rights to the Japanese star and gave him a $52 million contract. Matsuzaka went 33-15 in his first two years, helping win a World Series in 2007. But injuries, including elbow-reconstruction surgery June 2011, marred the last four years and he finished the deal 50-37.
"I didn't expect my six years to end the way it did," Matsuzaka said through a translator. "It has been really hard on me mentally for a while now."
Cano hit his 33rd homer in the fifth, following Alex Rodriguez's double. It was A-Rod's first extra-base hit since Sept. 14.
Cano has been on quite a tear, hitting .615 (24 for 39) during a stretch of nine straight multihit games that lifted his average to .313.
"It's a great feeling," Cano said. "It just came up at the right time."
Granderson matched his teammate with a solo shot to right-centre leading off the seventh for a 10-2 lead.
The Yankees narrowly avoided what would've been their biggest blown division lead in team history — they led by six games in 1933 and finished seven back of the original Washington Senators.
This summer's skid was brought on as CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Rodriguez got hurt. The Yankees stumbled through August — often looking old and tired. But New York went 19-8 down the stretch, thanks to two stirring comeback victories led by 40-year-old Raul Ibanez.
Girardi thinks the group was able to make a run after losing the division lead because they were old — well, experienced.
"I think having that experience in there when it got to zero no one panicked," He said of the division lead. "They had the same personality every day. The looseness, some of the guys were goofy."
NOTES: Jeter led the AL with 216 hits and finished with 99 runs. ... The Yankees won the season series 13-5, their most wins since 2001. ... There were 232 home runs at Yankee Stadium, up from 208 last year. There were four games with no homers as opposed to nine last year, seven in 2010 and just one in the first year. ... The Yankees had a home attendance of 3,542,406, their lowest in four seasons at new Yankee Stadium. Attendance was 3.72 million in 2009, climbed to 3.77 million in 2010, then dropped to 3.65 million last year. ... The Red Sox hired Eddie Bane as a special assistant, player personnel. Bane spent the last two seasons as a scout for the Detroit Tigers. He was director of scouting for the Angels from 2004-10. Among the players picked under his direction: Jered Weaver, Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout.