CC Sabathia stood near his locker in the back of the oval Yankees clubhouse while excited teammates celebrated New York's return to the postseason. "It feels like an eternity," the big left-hander said, not trying to hide his relief.
With some help from the one of the old guard, the next generation of Yankees will have a chance to make their mark in the playoffs.
Ending a rare two-year absence from the postseason, New York clinched a wild-card berth with three games to spare by beating the Boston Red Sox 4-1 Thursday night for the franchise's 10,000th regular-season win.
Putting behind the venerated teams of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, New York (87-72) opens its 52nd postseason with a winner-take-all game on Tuesday.
Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees most likely will face Houston (84-75) — which leads the race for the second wild card — or the Angels or Minnesota (83-76), tied a game behind the Astros.
"We'll never forget what Derek did for this organization," manager Joe Girardi said, "but you have to move on. Yogi retired. Mickey Mantle retired and Joe D retired — all these guys, they were great players, but the Yankees continued to win."
Masahiro Tanaka is lined up to pitch the wild-card game, with the winner advancing to a Division Series against East champion Toronto or Central winner Kansas City.
Carlos Beltran homered along with rookies Greg Bird and Rob Refsnyder on a drizzly, chilly evening that made sultry summer days seem long ago. Sabathia (6-10) allowed one run in five innings to win for the second time since the All-Star break.
New York had failed to reach the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since its 1982-93 drought, just before the start of a golden age that included five World Series titles and seven AL pennants from 1996-2009.
But these Yankees bear little resemblance to even their last postseason team of 36 months ago. Among the players swept by Detroit in the 2012 AL Championship Series, only Rodriguez, Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira and Sabathia remain, and Teixeira will miss this postseason because of a broken leg.
Now Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley, Brian McCann and Didi Gregorius support a creaky starting rotation, a strong back end of the bullpen and sputtering middle relievers. The 40-year-old Rodriguez played a big part, too, hitting 33 home runs after serving a drug suspension last season.
"It's kind of fitting that the 10,000th win clinches a postseason berth," Gardner said.
After Dellin Betances struck out Josh Rutledge to end it, the Yankees jogged onto the field to congratulate each other, along the lines of a normal win. Rookie catcher John Ryan Murphy and Betances did a little jumping, and the crowd — which seemed less than half the 40,033 tickets sold for the first night of October baseball — stood and applauded.
Players then put on goggles in the clubhouse as they sprayed non-vintage Chandon Brut Classic.
While the Yankees poured bubbly on their navy carpet for the first time since beating Baltimore in the 2012 Division Series, a wild card isn't what they expected. New York led the AL East by seven games before play on July 29 but has been a .500 club since then. The Yankees had never before failed to finish first in a season in which they led by more than six games.
"These guys to me did it a lot on just heart and hard work," Girardi said. "We had a lot of injuries. We have age on this team. We dealt with a lot of stuff. But they always kept fighting and they always seemed to be bounce back."
After losing the first three games of the series, New York built a 2-0 lead in the second against former Yankee Rich Hill (2-1), who revived his career this summer during a stint with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. Beltran hit his 19th homer, an opposite-field drive over the right-field scoreboard, No. 9 hitter Brendan Ryan singled in a run for his first RBI since July 31.
Sabathia (6-10), who gave up an RBI single to Mookie Betts in the fifth, is 2-1 with a 2.17 ERA in five starts since returning from the disabled list and wrapping a tighter brace around his surgically repaired right knee. Adam Warren pitched three scoreless innings that included a behind-the-legs glove stop of Sandy Leon's grounder for the final out of the sixth with a man on.
Bird connected off Jean Machi in the seventh, and Refsnyder hit the second of his big league career against Heath Hembree in the eighth, adding a safety margin. Betances closed with three straight outs for his ninth save in 13 chances.
Sabathia thought back to his late-summer stint on the DL.
"I was scared. I was nervous, for sure," he said.
But now Sabathia was excited "to be able to pop champagne and exhale for a second."
"I don't think it could have ended any better than we did, to clinch the way we did," Warren said. "He's done so many great things in this game and to be doing it like he is right now when we need him is big."
New York drew 3,193,795 for 80 home dates, an average of 39,922 and its lowest total at new Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009. Still, the Yankees led the AL for the 13th straight season.