TORONTO -- The Yankees would prefer not to think about how close they came to a doomsday scenario on Sunday, forced to dig out from an early lead in what they agreed across the board was a game they absolutely, positively had to win.
Shrugging off six sleepy innings, the Yankees came alive to complete one of their most stirring comebacks of the season, posting a 9-6 victory over the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Texas' victory over the Angels in the clubs' nightcap at Rangers Ballpark clinched a postseason berth for New York.
"I've always had that feeling about this team; we fight to the end," Nick Swisher said. "We play all 27, if not more, outs. Tonight was a season-defining game for us. We could have gone down big like that and just packed it in, but that's not this team's M.O. That's not how we approach it."
New York is now assured of at least winning one of the American League's Wild Cards, but it didn't come easily. The Yankees trailed, 5-1, through five innings before battling back, tying the game with a three-run seventh before adding two runs in each of the final two innings.
Eduardo Nunez's eighth-inning sacrifice fly off Brandon Lyon marked the go-ahead hit as the Yankees retained their share of first place in the American League East with the Orioles, who defeated the Red Sox, 6-3, in Baltimore.
As the Yankees prepared to travel back to New York for their final three games of the regular season against the Red Sox, Derek Jeter said that even if the Angels lost in Texas on Sunday evening, the Yankees wouldn't feel like they had reason to party.
"It means we're in the playoffs, but you celebrate for winning the division," Jeter said. "That's what you're trying to do. Our goal going into the season isn't to clinch a Wild Card. It's to win a division, and we still haven't done that."
Jeter added an RBI single in the eighth, and Curtis Granderson all but sealed the win with a two-run single in the ninth inning, cashing his 99th and 100th RBIs of the season.
Derek Lowe turned in 1 2/3 scoreless innings to restore order, and Boone Logan picked up the win as the Yankees overcame a rough start by Phil Hughes.
Hughes was knocked around for five runs and eight hits in 4 2/3 innings, becoming the fourth straight New York hurler to turn in a start of fewer than six innings.
"It was a bad day," Hughes said. "Fortunately, the guys battled back and we got a win, which we really needed. But for me personally, I didn't throw the ball well, and this could have really been a disaster."
Hughes surrendered two runs in a loud first inning, including a Yunel Escobar RBI double, and hung a slider to Brett Lawrie for a two-run homer, part of a three-run fifth inning that appeared crushing at the time.
Moises Sierra and Adam Lind also notched RBIs in Hughes' 93-pitch outing, which was assisted by a terrific Ichiro Suzuki catch to rob Edwin Encarnacion of extra bases in the third inning.
"It's disappointing," Hughes said. "The last start of the regular season, you want to end on a good note. It's been tough, and I haven't pitched well here at all this year. I was hoping to rebound from that, and it just didn't happen."
The Yankees seemed to be handcuffed by Toronto starter Henderson Alvarez, who pumped fastball after fastball into the strike zone and emerged largely unscathed, permitting two runs over six innings.
"I thought we were swinging the bats OK," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We had some lineouts, we had some hard ground-ball outs. Alvarez is going to get some ground balls, and that was what he was doing, but we kept at it."
Eric Chavez woke up the bats with a third-inning homer, and Robinson Cano scored on a sixth-inning wild pitch, but New York's lineup didn't really click until Alvarez's 87-pitch workload was complete.
"I thought he was a little more hyped up than he normally is," Swisher said of Alvarez. "He did a great job for them, but we were able to get him out of the game early right there, which is crucial."
New York tied the game in the seventh off three Toronto pitchers, as Ichiro popped a sacrifice fly and Alex Rodriguez worked a key walk. Cano laced a run-scoring double and Aaron Loup uncorked a wild pitch, allowing A-Rod to slide home with the tying run.
Rafael Soriano worked the ninth inning in a non-save situation as the Yankees avoided falling out of first place in the AL East for the first time since June 10. With just three games remaining on the Yankees' regular-season schedule, this race promises to provide a memorable finish.
"This is why you play," Jeter said. "You play for these situations. Regular season, playoffs -- it doesn't make a difference. This is when it's most fun."