The New York Yankees will never admit it, but they threw in the towel at the trade deadline earlier this year. They woke up on the morning on July 25 with a 50-48 record, which had them 4 1/2 games back of a wild card spot with six teams ahead of them in the standings. They were 7 1/2 back in the AL East.

Later that day the Yankees traded Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs for three prospects and reliever Adam Warren , the former Yankee who went to Chicago in the Starlin Castro trade. The Yankees lost four of their next six games, so, a week later, they traded Carlos Beltran to the Texas Rangers , Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians , and Ivan Nova to the Pittsburgh Pirates . They were 5 1/2 games out of the wild-card race on the morning of the trade deadline.

That was it. The Yankees told everyone they weren’t good enough to win this year by cashing in their top trade chips for prospects. A few days later they started calling up young players from Triple-A and stuck them in the lineup everyday. Alex Rodriguez was released and other veterans like Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira had their playing time reduced. The team was focused on the future.

usatsi9497215.jpgGary Sanchez was named AL Player of the Month in his first full month as a big leaguer. USATSI

New York’s rebuild lasted about a week and a half, apparently. They shut out the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night (NYY 2, TOR 0) for their fourth straight win, improving their record to 21-13 since trading away productive veterans at the trade deadline. Only the Kansas City Royals (23-11) and Rangers (21-12) have better records among AL teams during that time.

Wednesday’s win over the Blue Jays combined with losses by the Baltimore Orioles (TB 7, BAL 6), Detroit Tigers (CWS 7, DET 4), and Houston Astros (CLE 6, HOU 5) brought the Yankees to with 2 1/2 games of the second wild-card spot. Heck, they’re only 3 1/2 games back in the AL East with a ton of games left to play against the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Boston Red Sox . One thing at a time though.

Here are the up-to-minute standings for the second wild-card spot:

TeamWLGBRun Diff.
Yankees73652 1/2-12

The Yankees aren’t necessarily winning pretty, mind you. A 7-6 victory Tuesday against the Blue Jays (box score) very nearly turned into a disastrous loss, but Brett Gardner made a game-saving catch at the wall for the 27th out. Check it out:

Of those 21 wins since the trade deadline, eight have been by two or fewer runs, so the Yankees have played some nail-biters. The Yankees haven’t turned into a juggernaut since the trade deadline or anything like that. They’re eking out wins and slowly gaining ground in the race.

Here are five reasons why they’ve been able to do it.

1. Sanchez had a huge August

Once the Yankees traded Beltran and released A-Rod, they moved McCann to DH full-time and installed top prospect Gary Sanchez as their everyday catcher. Since then, Sanchez has been a monster, hitting .348/.423/.713 with 11 home runs and 21 RBI in 29 games. He’s actually been slumping a bit in September (.188/.316/.188), but his August was so good he was named AL Player of the Month. Sanchez stepped right into the lineup and was an impact bat.

2. Tanaka has been dominant

usatsi9507749.jpgIs it possible to be a Yankee and underrated? Because Masahiro Tanaka is. USATSI

Somehow right-hander Masahiro Tanaka has managed to be a great player for the Yankees while seemingly flying under the radar. He is almost never mentioned as one of the best pitchers in the league, and yet Tanaka is 12-4 with a 3.11 ERA in 28 starts and 179 1/3 innings in 2016. The FanGraphs version of WAR says he has been one of the three best pitchers in the AL.

The Yankees have won 13 of Tanaka’s past 15 starts, and, since the trade deadline, he has a 2.98 ERA with 42 strikeouts and only four walks in 45 1/3 innings. The Yankees have won six of his seven starts. New York’s rotation isn’t great by any means, but once every five days it’s sending a legitimate ace out to mound. Tanaka won’t win the Cy Young Award, though he absolutely belongs in the conversation.

3. Castro has gotten hot

Starlin Castro’s first season in pinstripes has had its ups and downs, sorta of like his career with the Cubs. He came into Wednesday hitting .265/.296/.425 with 24 doubles, 19 home runs, and 65 RBI on the season. That’s … decent. Not great, not terrible. Tolerable.

Since the start of August, Castro has hit .291/.308/.530 with nine home runs and 26 RBI. He drove in the game-ahead run with a sacrifice fly Tuesday night, then opened the scoring Wednesday night with a solo home run off Marcus Stroman .

Before the trade deadline, the Yankees offense was build around Beltran, who was far and away their best hitter. He was a constant, and they had to hope two or three other players would get hot each week. More often than not, it didn’t happen.

Sanchez has been the offensive centerpiece since the trade deadline, and Castro has been his right-hand man. His 20 home runs are a career high, and lately he has given the Yankees something they’ve lacked all season: a second impact hitter.

4. The replacement starters have excelled

The Yankees traded away Nova, an impending free agent, at the trade deadline, and they’ve since lost two more starting pitchers to injury. Nathan Eovaldi needed his second Tommy John surgery, and last week Chad Green suffered a flexor tendon injury that ended his season. That’s three starters down.

Righty Luis Cessa and Green stepped into the rotation last month to cover for Nova and Eovaldi. Then, when Green went down, young Bryan Mitchell came up to take his spot. He tossed five scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on Wednesday. Mitchell was expected to be in New York’s bullpen this season, but he broke a toe covering first base at the end of spring training, and only recently returned to game action.

usatsi9509907.jpgLuis Cessa is 4-0 in four starts since joining New York’s rotation last month. USATSI

Since the trade deadline, the trio of Cessa, Green, and Mitchell have combined for a 3.58 ERA in 10 starts and 50 1/3 innings. (Green left his last start after 1 2/3 innings due to injury.) The Yankees are 8-2 in those 10 games. These guys haven’t dominated, but they’re the team’s sixth, seventh, and eighth starters, and they’ve filled in capably the last few weeks.

5. The bullpen has improved

How do you trade Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman and actually improve the bullpen? By adding depth. The Yankees brought in Warren and Tyler Clippard at the trade deadline, and they’ve stepped into the seventh and eighth innings to replace Miller and Chapman. Those two have a combined 2.06 ERA in 35 innings.

Furthermore, the Yankees pulled the plug on Luis Severino as a starting pitcher because he struggled so much earlier in the season, and they stuck him in the bullpen. His numbers as a reliever are off-the-charts:

Wednesday night Severino took over for Mitchell and threw three scoreless innings to hand the ball over to Clippard, who filled in at closer for the overworked Dellin Betances . Severino struck out three and allowed only one hit and one walk.

Miller and Chapman are two of the three or four best pitchers on the planet, which by definition makes them almost irreplaceable. Clippard and Warren have done a fine job in the seventh and eighth innings though, and the addition of Severino added another weapon. The middle innings were a big problem in the first half of the season. Now manager Joe Girardi has three legitimate setup weapons out there.

As well as they’ve played since the trade deadline, the odds are still stacked against the Yankees in the wild-card race. There are three teams ahead of them in the standings with only 24 games to play. Also, the Yankees don’t play the Tigers or Astros the rest of the season, so they need help. Other clubs will have to beat Detroit and Houston for them.

Teams that are out of the race and sell at the trade deadline tend to fade in the second half and lose a ton of ballgames. The Yankees have done the opposite. They’re playing better right now than they have at any other point in the season. Will it be enough to get them into the postseason? Probably not. But they’ve made it clear they won’t go out quietly.

Source: CBS Sports / Five reasons the deadline-selling Yankees are still in the wild-card race