NEW YORK -- Much of the Big City inhaled through its teeth as the baseball floated by the foul pole in right field. Put your forefinger and thumb a quarter-inch apart. That's how close Nate McLouth's fly ball came to striking the pole and tying the score at 1 in the sixth inning. Or was it a quarter-inch closer?

Put your forefinger and thumb far enough apart to form an uppercase C. That's how close Mark Teixeira came to being called out on his surprise stolen base in the fifth inning that proved important. Put the tips of your thumbs end to end and extend your forefingers upward as if forming a digital goal post. That's how close Derek Jeter came to intercepting Lew Ford's run-scoring single in the eighth inning. Put your forefinger and thumb close enough that Dusty Baker's toothpick would barely fit in between and understand manager Joe Girardi was about that close to yanking ace CC Sabathia in the eighth inning after the Orioles had scored and loaded the bases.

Now put your forefinger and thumb close enough that no more than a thought can slide between them; that's how much better the Yankees are than the Orioles.

What other conclusion can be drawn after the two best teams in the American League East walked in lockstep through most of the 52 innings they played in an American League Division Series that had more tension than the Wallendas' high-wire act. The Yankees won Game 5, 3-1, on Friday evening, so they advance to an engagement with the guys from Motown. But in no way does their victory -- or their three wins in five games -- connote a conspicuous superiority.

Wild Card vs. Yankees

These teams were equals in the regular season, splitting their 18 engagements. And they spent the series closer than Baby and Johnny in "Dirty Dancing." They were separated by no more than one run at the end of 46 of the first 48 innings.

If disparity did exist, it traveled under the name Sabathia, though even his magnificent pitching in Game 5 didn't assure the Yankees of getting another October opportunity against Cy Verlander and Triple Crown Cabrera. He just made it possible.

The Orioles wouldn't go away until the ninth, when Sabathia did his Jerry West act and took the final shot. With the unqualified blessing of his manager but with the Yankees' bullpen prepared, Sabathia pitched his first complete game in 17 postseason starts, capping it as Mariano would have -- three and out in the ninth.

CC's nine innings made it a complete game in more ways than on. It spoke to his manager's trust and served as a response to the silent wishes of folks introduced to the game when Whitey Ford and Bob Gibson routinely finished what they started in October.

"All you have to do is look at Oakland [on Thursday] night and what happened there with Verlander," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "That's why they're so ... there are really only about six or seven true No. 1 starters in baseball. And we throw that [identification] around very easily. [Sabathia] certainly is one of those guys who can dominate and make a difference in just a pure 'W' or 'L' way. And that's why guys like him are in such demand."

But it goes beyond innings, application of pitch counts and the title of "ace." Former Cardinals manager Johnny Keane allowed Gibson to complete Game 7 of the 1964 World Series, even after the Yankees had reduced their deficit to two runs with two ninth-inning home runs.

"I had a commitment to his heart," was Keane's explanation.

Made aware of Keane's testament, Girardi said: "Very similar. I know CC. I know what he has inside. ... .And I would have let Gibson finish, too."

Girardi considered a pitching change in the eighth, but he also identified the game "his game," referring to Sabathia. His pitcher, a good soldier, might have accepted a hook more readily than Girardi could have applied it. The manager considered it all -- 25 innings' worth of baseball between Games 3 and 4, no off-day before Game 1 against the Tigers. Girardi needed nine as much as he wanted nine.

"I talk about CC as being one of those big, strong pitchers that usually gets better as the game goes on," Girardi said. "I mean, that's who he is. You think about the eighth inning, and that's where we saw the highest velocity all night from him. He has a way of being able to step it up when he gets into a jam, too."

Sabathia hasn't reached the Gibby-Whitey level yet -- so few have -- but he clearly polished his image on Friday. And if the odd no-off-day-between-series scheduling and inclemency join hands, a Verlander-Sabathia confrontation in the ALCS would be even more seductive because of how the Yankees' ace handled the O's.

The other numbers in Sabathia's line on Friday were four (hits), two (walks), nine (strikeouts) and 121 (pitches). Only the final one will matter next week when Sabathia will be asked to reprise the performance. He twice threw 121 pitches, a season high, in regular-season starts -- both losses -- and was quite functional in the starts that followed.

Girardi is pushing all the right buttons -- having Raul Ibanez pinch-hit in Game 3 was a masterpiece move, and Sabathia for nine in Game 5 was necessary. And reducing the team's reliance on Alex Rodriguez's tardy bat was needed as well. It is painful duty for a manager. Davey Johnson said his most difficult moves as a manager involved ushering Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter to the door as their skills waned -- more difficult than sitting Strasburg.

Girardi is managing in the brightest spotlight. He did on Friday what Billy Martin did in the final game of the 1977 ALCS. Martin benched Reggie Jackson against Royals left-hander Paul Splittorff. Girardi benched one of his sure-fire Hall of Famers in a decisive move. Martin's decision, supported by some of his players, was made at least partially out of disdain. Girardi has acted out of a sense of what's right.

Now extend your arms outward at shoulder height and measure the difference.

The Yankees are alive. Girardi's been right a lot.