TORONTO -- When the ball left the bat, Cito Gaston thought it was a home run. From his seat in the dugout, he saw a familiar, encouraging sign.
"Usually you can see if it's a home run because the ball gets smaller, and that one started to get smaller real quick," the Toronto Blue Jays manager said. "Something knocked it down out there."
And just as it appeared it would turn into an out, something made the ball bounce off the glove of Johnny Damon when he leaped for it at the centre-field wall in the eighth inning. The man who hit it, Marco Scutaro, cruised into second base as Joe Inglett scored from first.
Turns out Scutaro's bolt was as good as a home run, for it lifted the Blue Jays to a 2-1 win over the New York Yankees in the first game of a critical series for both teams. The Jays have won six of their past seven games.
Damon said he failed to retreat quickly enough on Scutaro's double and had to accelerate at the last second.
"When you do that, your head shakes a bit," said the veteran outfielder. "I couldn't believe I didn't come down with it."
A.J. Burnett pitched eight innings and struck out 13, one short of his career high, to earn his 16th victory. The only run he surrendered came in the first inning, when Damon walked and scored on a double by Bobby Abreu.
That run held up until the seventh, when Adam Lind hit a solo homer off Yankee starter Darrell Rasner. The homer was Lind's ninth and third in three games.
B.J. Ryan earned his 24th save, with a big boost from first baseman Lyle Overbay. Alex Rodriguez singled softly over first to open the ninth and tried to stretch it into a double. Overbay chased down the ball, wheeled and fired a strike to John McDonald, who slapped the tag on an embarrassed A-Rod.
"That changed the whole inning," Ryan said, observing that a leadoff hit can be poison for a closer.
"I'm just trying to keep him off second," Overbay said. "You don't want to get a leadoff double. I ended up getting a good grip on the ball and putting a good throw on the ball and just kind of got lucky."
A crowd of approximately 37,000 watched a taut battle between Burnett, who has won six straight games, and Rasner, who has not won since July 12. Burnett trailed by the narrowest of margins until Lind connected.
"I was just really focused on executing my pitches after that first inning," Burnett said. "I wasn't going to allow another one."
It was the most dominating start of the season for Burnett, who can exercise his option to become a free agent after the season. Damon intimated he had a suggestion as to where Burnett might land next year.
"He's a real good pitcher," Damon said. "I hope he opts out of his deal."
Burnett leads the league in strikeouts with 178. Against the Yankees he had eight by the end of the fourth inning and finished the fifth, sixth and seventh innings with whiffs. He allowed five hits in eight innings.
"It's good to have a packed crowd that's cheering like that. It definitely makes you more amped up," he said.
The victory pulled the Jays to within one game of New York, the closest of three teams they are pursuing in the wild-card race.
This game began the season's most important week for the Jays, who buoyed their faint playoff hopes with a 5-1 road trip to Detroit and Boston. After playing three against the Yankees, they will meet Boston for a weekend series.
Toronto can afford precious few losses, as manager Cito Gaston acknowledged before the game. The Jays play 31 of their remaining 37 games against teams currently ahead of them in the standings.
"This week can make you or break you, and if it makes you, you've still got another week to make you or break you," he said. "It doesn't get any easier. You've got to play well. You can't afford to get swept. You've got to win some series. Otherwise you can start thinking about next year."
The odds suggest that mindset is imminent. Over the past five years, the American League wild-card winners have needed an average of 92 wins. To reach that total, Toronto would have to go 27-10 the rest of the way.
"If you do that, you've certainly earned it," Gaston said.
Jays and Yankees tonight at the Rogers Center. The Jays need the win to come even with the Yankees. Sorry, but I won't be able to take questions tonight. Enjoy the game!