NEW YORK (AP) — Greg Bird watched Baltimore manager Buck Showalter take the ball from Jorge Rondon and signal to the bullpen for the left-hander.
While Brian Matusz trotted in with two on, no outs and the score 5-all, Bird darted into the video room behind the Yankees dugout and asked for video coordinator Anthony Flynn and baseball operations assistant Brett Weber to show him a fastball and slider from the reliever.
Bird wanted to see “just kind of I guess what it’s sort of going to look like,” he explained. “Scouting reports don’t necessarily do it justice. I’m big on seeing and feeling what it’s like in the box.”
Less than 2 1/2 minutes later, Bird was in the batter’s box. Three pitches later, he was the Yankees’ Big Bird, hitting a three-run homer that bounced off the back of New York’s bullpen in right-center.
Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller held on for an 8-6 Labor Day win Monday that pulled the Yankees within a half-game of AL East-leading Toronto, which lost for just the eighth time in 36 games, 11-4 at Boston.
“It’s nice to see them lose games,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
Alex Rodriguez and John Ryan Murphy also homered for the Yankees (77-59), who overcame a 4-1 deficit and improved to 18 games over .500 for the first time since 2012. With his 29th homer this season, A-Rod got his 3,054th career hit and passed Rod Carew for sole possession of 22nd place.
A 22-year-old who made his big league debut on Aug. 13, Bird is hitting .263 with five homers and 17 RBIs. He has become the Yankees’ primary first baseman since Mark Teixeira fouled a ball of his right lower leg on Aug. 17, interrupting a renaissance season in which Teixeira helped carry New York’s offense.
“Tex being hurt, of course it’s a tough spot for him to come here and cover,” Yankees right fielder Carlos Beltran said. “He’s been able to play around his ability instead of just letting the moment take over.”
Bird is among New York’s top prospects. A fifth-round draft pick in 2011, Bird was the organization’s 2013 minor league player of the year and MVP of last year’s Arizona Fall League.
“It never seems like he’s overwhelmed or never seems like any moment is too big for him,” New York outfielder Brett Gardner said. “It seems like he’s really got a knack for just being able to stay composed under pressure and come through in a big way. … He plays like he’s much older than 22.”
When Bird first arrived, he pulled Gardner aside to ask a few questions, inquiring of the batting practice schedule.
“For me, it’s just about simplicity,” Bird said. “I’m just trying to hit the ball hard. The rest is out of my hands.”
Rondon (0-1) walked Beltran leading off the seventh, Chris Young singled and Showalter brought in Matusz, who had held lefties to a .143 average. Matusz got ahead in the count 0-2, then hung an 83 mph slider.
Baltimore has lost 15 of 18 in an emphatic fade from AL wild-card contention.
“We are not taking advantage of the counts when we do get them in our favor,” Showalter said. “We just can’t correct it.”
Yankees starter Michael Pineda fell behind 4-1 in a four-run second inning, when Jonathan Schoop hit a three-run homer on an 0-2 fastball.
“He really didn’t have much. His slider was backing up. He was missing spots with his fastball,” Girardi said. “And then Michael kind of righted the ship.”
Rodriguez homered leading off the fifth against Wei-Yin Chen and Murphy’s two-run homer later in the inning put the Yankees ahead 5-4. But Manny Machado homered in the seventh off Justin Wilson (5-0), just the second this season off the left-hander.
Betances struck out the side in the eighth around three walks. When Caleb Joseph swung just under a 3-2 belt-high slider for the final out, he slammed his bat against the plate, splitting the wood, then snapped it apart against his right knee.
Miller pitched the ninth for his 32nd save in 33 chances, allowing Chris Davis’ 101st RBI on a two-out single before striking out Jimmy Paredes.
“A way to make the fans a little nervous,” Betances said with a smile.
New York improved to 58-2 when leading after six innings. After throwing 57 pitches in two days, Betances likely won’t pitch Tuesday. He has thrown 1,166 pitches this season, according to STATS, second among relievers behind Philadelphia’s Justin De Fratus, who entered Monday with 1,305.
Yankees: CC Sabathia (right knee) is scheduled to start Wednesday night in his first appearance since Aug. 23. … New York said after the game that RHP Nathan Eovaldi has an inflamed right elbow and won’t throw for two weeks.
Masahiro Tanaka (11-6), who has won three of his last four outings, starts for the Yankees on Tuesday night. Kevin Gausman (2-6), slated for the Orioles, is 0-4 in his last six starts.