NEW YORK — A day after getting blanked on one puny single, Nelson Cruz and Baltimore Orioles powered up for the postseason.
Cruz hit his major league-leading 40th home run and the AL East champions pushed Derek Jeter and the Yankees to the brink of playoff elimination, beating New York 5-4 on Sept. 23.
Cruz boosted his career high for home runs, reaching a nice, round number. “When it happens it happens, but it was good to get it in a win,” he said. “It feels good to get it. Now we want to keep that pace up.”
The Orioles began the day 2 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Angels, who played later at Oakland, for the best record in the league and home-field advantage for the entire postseason.
Baltimore earned its 94th win, its most since 98 in 1997. “We still have some baseball to play,” Nick Markakis said after homering and getting four of the Orioles’ 17 hits.
Cruz sent a drive into the left-field seats to open the fifth inning, giving him 107 RBIs. He became the sixth Baltimore player to post a 40-homer season, topped by Chris Davis’ 53 last year.
Kelly Johnson also homered for the team that tops the majors with 205. Cruz and Nick Hundley each had three hits.
Markakis led off the game with a single, hit an RBI single in the second, and his two-run homer in the fourth made it 4-0. He returned to the lineup after missing four games with a bruised right shoulder.
“Everybody’s seeing Nick back swinging like they know he can, pain-free. That gets everyone fired up,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said.
The Yankees fell five games behind for the second AL wild card with only five games left.
Jeter extended his hitting streak to seven games, but struck out on three pitches with a runner on first to end it. The retiring captain has two more home dates scheduled.
Playing right field, Markakis was well aware of Jeter’s past dramatics. That left Markakis with one main thought. “Um, try not to let the ball get past me. You know he always seems to find holes and gaps, especially in big situations,” he said.
Zach Britton pitched the ninth for his 36th save in 40 chances. After Brett Gardner got an infield hit with two outs, Britton fanned a swinging Jeter with a 96 mph fastball for the final out. “He was better than me tonight,” Jeter said.
As for the Yankees’ situation, Manager Joe Girardi said: “All you can do is play tomorrow and win a game tomorrow.”
“That’s all you can do, and hope you get some help. We obviously know that we’re in a deep hole, but that’s all you can do,” he said.
Ubaldo Jimenez (6-9) made his second start in more than a month, giving up three hits in five-plus innings. A disappointment since signing a four-year, $50 million free-agent deal, Jimenez isn’t likely to start in the playoffs — this outing came while Showalter gave his other starters an extra day of rest heading into October.
“You always want to finish strong. It really made me happy,” Jimenez said.
Brandon McCarthy (7-5) gave up 11 hits in 5 1-3 innings, including all three Baltimore home runs.
Brian McCann hit his 23rd homer, a two-run drive in the Yankees seventh off Andrew Miller.
Ichiro Suzuki doubled for his 2,841st hit in the big leagues, moving into 47th place on the career list past Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer.
(BEN WALKER, AP Baseball Writer)