After losing three of four to Toronto this weekend, the Yankees were nearly as close to being out of the playoffs as they were from the top of the AL East. Through seven innings against Erasmo Ramirez and the Rays last night, they didn’t manage a hit. They were down 1-0 with two outs in the ninth and no one on. It was the kind of win that almost screamed for an unlikely hero.

After Alex Rodriguez’s game-tying double, an intentional walk put two men on for rookie outfielder Slade Heathcott, who was only in the game to replace light-hitting speedster Rico Noel, who came on as a pinch runner in the seventh. (It was Noel’s fifth career appearance, and he has yet to receive a plate appearance.) Heathcott’s opposite-field liner barely cleared the wall in left, the dugout went nuts, and the Yankees had a crucial 4-1 win.

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“It was definitely the biggest hit of the season,” CC Sabathia said. Alex Rodriguez went one further: “No question, today is probably the biggest game of the year.”

Heathcott’s path to the majors has been a rough one. A difficult childhood evolved into problems with alcohol, including a blackout at a party that ended up with Heathcott having a shotgun pulled on him and waking up in an emergency room with a deep gash that he doesn’t remember receiving. (Before being drafted, he made up a story for Yankees scouts about how he had received the wound.) Another blackout in spring training led him to confess his issues to the Yankees, who sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Heathcott, who credits his born-again Christianity for his sobriety, was expected to being contributing to the Yankees this year, but suffered a quad strain just six games into his first call-up in May. He wasn’t recalled until this past Saturday, and last night’s home run was his first at-bat since coming back.

“I was just trying to pretend that this game is the same everywhere I play,” Heathcott said. “Stay calm, get a good pitch to hit and hit it. That’s all you can do.”

Still, he admitted, “I was trying to crush a ball.”

With the win, the Yankees moved to three games behind the idle Blue Jays in the AL East.