NEW YORK -- There is no wiggle room for the Yankees to get cute at this must-win stage of the schedule, a fact reinforced as Mariano Rivera trotted through the bullpen gate in search of his first multi-inning save in more than two years.
The game might have gone off script a bit after seven breezy innings, but Rivera cleaned up the mess. The all-time saves leader notched the final four outs, preserving a 6-5 victory for CC Sabathia and completing a three-game series sweep of the White Sox.
"In some situations, I have to do that," said Rivera, whose last four-out save came on July 24, 2011. "Tonight was one of them. It doesn't matter, as long as we get it done. You get a win tonight, and we had the lead and we just had to hold it."
Rivera's 41st save and second in as many nights peeled another date off the calendar for the Yankees, who have won five of six contests heading into a crucial four-game showdown with the American League East-leading Red Sox.
"It could do a lot to determine where we're going to be at," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think it's important that we concentrate on one game at a time and not look too far ahead."
That has been Girardi's mantra for some time. If the Yankees, who are 2 1/2 games back of Tampa Bay for the second American League Wild Card, are to overcome their long odds and make the playoffs, it would be easier if this version of Sabathia -- the one that earned a standing ovation when exiting in the eighth inning -- hangs around for a bit.
Sabathia's line of three earned runs in 7 1/3 innings was dented when David Robertson permitted two inherited runners to score in a shaky relief outing, but the left-hander turned in his longest outing since Aug. 7, which also came against the White Sox in Chicago.
"I feel like I'm getting better," Sabathia said. "Like I've said, I'll keep building, keep working and try to help the team win."
The Yankees collected five runs (three earned) and seven hits in six innings against touted right-hander Erik Johnson, who served up a first-inning homer to Robinson Cano and took the loss in his Major League debut.
That support helped Sabathia stay in command of the White Sox lineup for most of the night, limiting Chicago to five hits -- two of which came in Sabathia's final inning.
"I thought he was pretty good tonight," Girardi said. "I don't think too many pitches cut tonight. He gave us distance tonight. He did a very good job."
Girardi said he sensed some fatigue with Sabathia at 111 pitches, leading him to call on Robertson.
With two on and one out, Robertson allowed a run-scoring single to Avisail Garcia and a two-out, two-run single to Josh Phegley, prompting a mound visit from pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
"It was a tough inning," Robertson said. "I couldn't make anything work. It seemed like everything I threw either got put in play or found a hole or was hit hard."
Marcus Semien collected his first Major League RBI with a single up the middle, and the Yanks pressed the panic button. Rivera entered to punch out Alejandro De Aza on a disputed third strike before setting the White Sox down in order in the ninth.
"We need to do whatever it takes to help the team win," Rivera said. "If it's two outs, three outs, four outs, whatever it takes. That's what we're here for."
Johnson is ranked as Chicago's No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com, and Cano welcomed the rookie to The Show with a long first-inning homer that landed in the right-field bleachers.
It was Cano's 203rd career homer, passing Bill Dickey for sole possession of 15th place on the Yankees' all-time list.
"We didn't know much about [Johnson]," Cano said. "We just knew that he was pitching good in the Minors. We were able to score some runs early, we took advantage when he threw some balls over the plate."
New York assembled a four-run fourth inning, helped by a Johnson throwing error. Lyle Overbay stroked an RBI double, Brett Gardner skied a two-run triple and Cano legged out a RBI infield hit, creating a nice cushion for Sabathia.
"It's a real tough lineup they've got over there," Johnson said. "I thought I could have done a little bit better job, but overall I thought it was a good one to start with."
Alfonso Soriano also had a sacrifice fly for the Yankees, who won't have much time to savor the sweep. They now must prepare for an even more serious challenge; a pivotal 11-game stretch with the Red Sox and Orioles.
"Obviously, you're playing in your division, you're playing teams that are next to you or right ahead of you, and you're trying to make up ground on other teams," Girardi said. "So it's real important."