"These are big games for us," Gardner said. "Tonight definitely felt like a playoff game. This is pretty high intensity, a pretty good environment -- a big win for us, and I think that tonight is going to be a lot like how the playoffs are, no matter if we're playing the Angels or whoever."
In what certainly could have played as an October preview, the Yankees needed every bit of their resources to do away with the pesky Angels, winning for just the sixth time in their past 24 games at Angel Stadium.
"It definitely felt like a postseason game out there the last two nights, even more so tonight," said Rodriguez, who also homered and saved a run with a crucial diving stab in the sixth inning. "It's a good team win. If we execute fundamentals and don't beat ourselves, the chances of winning are a lot better."
New York clinched the first phase of its postseason plans while still on the field, the berth finalized by the Athletics' 9-1 victory over the Rangers while Jorge Posada was batting in the eighth inning. But that gave the Yankees little cause to rejoice -- not after they gave back all five runs to the pesky Angels.
Facing Matt Palmer in the ninth inning, Gardner opened the frame with a line-drive single to center and waited out the right-hander, who threw to first base repeatedly to check the speedster. Gardner took second base on the 1-0 delivery, and Derek Jeter walked.
Johnny Damon was sent up with instructions to bunt but fouled off his first two attempts. Bunting on his own with two strikes, Damon succeeded, pushing Gardner and Jeter along to set up Rodriguez's solid sacrifice fly to center field and get the ball to Mariano Rivera for his 41st save.
"I thought this was a tough win for us, and we got it," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think it's important because this has been a tough place for us. The way we won the game ... was really a big win for us."
"They battled back just like they do every single time," Damon said. "For us to get something going that they normally get going is huge. We didn't want to back into the playoffs, either. It's always good to win, and we sealed our own fate."
Rodriguez, Posada and Hideki Matsui all homered off Angels starter Ervin Santana for the Yankees, who squeezed 4 2/3 innings out of Chad Gaudin before leaning on their bullpen to get to the finish line. Yet the Yankees knew from all of their experience here that they were not out of the woods yet.
"Every time that Rally Monkey comes out, they score," Jeter said. "I'm not lying."
The Yankees once tried to look away from the entertaining video-screen antics, but it proved no use. Sure enough, as the jumping act began in the sixth, the Angels came alive and the Yankees had to find a rally of their own to work with.
"That's kind of the way we've been playing all year," Mark Teixeira said. "If it gets close late in the game, we've been finding ways to win. Here, we've been finding ways to lose. I think it kind of got back to our baseball."
Kendry Morales and Juan Rivera started the sixth inning with hits, and Gary Matthews Jr. drove in the Angels' third run with a pinch-hit single. Chone Figgins singled to load the bases and Aceves got the second out, but Bobby Abreu worked an RBI walk to force in the fourth run.
The inning ended and the Yankees escaped, as A-Rod made a key diving stop on a Vladimir Guerrero grounder, throwing to first base to escape with a lead. Phil Hughes bailed Damaso Marte out of a tough spot in the seventh by getting two ground-ball outs, but the luck ran out there.
Robinson Cano's error led to the blown lead in the eighth, as Howard Kendrick rocketed a pinch-hit grounder off the second baseman's glove, stole second base and advanced when Posada bounced his throw off the mark. Maicer Izturis lined the game-tying single to right field, but Hughes clamped the damage and was rewarded with his eighth victory.
"He has really matured," Girardi said of Hughes. "We're going to need him, and he did a really nice job."
The playoff entry was acknowledged after the game with hugs and handshakes, but no wild celebrations -- a tact that was encouraged by the Yankees' team leaders. Those will be reserved for a potential division clinch in the near future, when next chapter of the club's season truly begins.
"It's good to be in," Rodriguez said. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us. There's no question the intensity level was very high. This was a good team win. A lot of good things happened."