Yanks pleased to be back, but not content
Return to ALCS a stepping-stone toward 27th championship
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Yankees are going back to the American League Championship Series for the first time since the Red Sox ended a decades-long curse with four consecutive wins back in 2004. And to listen to the voices coming out of the visitors' clubhouse at the Metrodome on Sunday night, defeating the Twins was only one part of a three-step process.
The Bronx Bombers will open their best-of-seven series against the Angels at Yankee Stadium on Friday evening. And nothing short of the franchise's 27th World Series title is going to be acceptable."This is a very deep team," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "If we don't get you in one way, we can get in another. In this series, our pitching was phenomenal, from the starters to the bullpen. Our pitching and defense got us out of this first round, and we'll rely on it a lot against the Angels." The 103-win Yankees outscored the 87-win Twins, 15-6, in winning all the three AL Division Series games. New York's dominance over Minnesota this year was so complete that the Bombers finished the season 10-0 against the Twins, including four wins at the Metrodome, which said farewell to baseball with Sunday night's 4-1 decision. The Yankees have now defeated the Twins three times in the ALDS, having won all five games on the road. The last time they did so was in 2004, the year of the collapse against the Red Sox. After taking out Minnesota in four games, New York built a 3-0 lead on Boston before the tables turned and the Red Sox became the only team in Major League history to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win in seven games.
That loss has weighed heavily on the Yankees since then, particularly with the Red Sox having won the World Series in 2004 and again in '07 while the Yanks had gone winless in two postseason series and missed the playoffs completely last season.The Yankees were World Series winners four times in five years from 1996-2000 under then-manager Joe Torre, including three in a row. But all of that seems like a distant memory at this point, even though there are four key players -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte -- on this team from that era who are still major contributors. It may seem fitting that on the same day the Red Sox were swept out of the playoffs by the Angels, this year's Yankees team moved on. "I think that's a message that we have for all our teammates -- we have four or five guys in our clubhouse who have been there and done that, and have played extremely well in October," said Alex Rodriguez, who had a breakout ALDS with two homers and six RBIs, including a seventh-inning solo shot on Sunday night that tied the score at 1.
"All of us can follow those guys, especially Derek. He is our captain and our leader, and he had a fantastic series. We can learn from them."All four members of the old guard contributed in one way or another to Sunday night's victory and will be relied upon as the Yankees go deeper into the playoffs. Jeter had a double and finished with a .400 batting average in the ALDS. Posada followed A-Rod two batters later and hit a homer that put the Yankees up for good, 2-1. Pettitte pitched 6 1/3 innings of one-run, three-hit ball to earn his 15th postseason win, which tied him with John Smoltz for the most in Major League history. Rivera came on in his typical closer role and got the last four outs to extend his own postseason record with his 35th save. His playoff ERA is 0.74.
Push for the pennant
The fact is that none of these four players came into the season as a sure thing. Jeter had a relatively subpar season in 2008, seemingly showing the wear and tear of a 35-year-old shortstop. Posada and Rivera were both returning from right shoulder surgery. Pettitte returned at the last minute and has pitched through a balky left elbow and shoulder.But the quartet, which includes at least two future Hall of Famers -- Jeter and Rivera -- bounced back beyond most followers' wildest imaginations. Plus, there was the matter of non-playoff-tested manager Joe Girardi, who piloted the Yankees to their only postseason miss since a players' strike ended the 1994 season early, knocking out that year's postseason, including the World Series. A perception lingered that the Yanks weren't the same without Torre, who led them to their four most recent World Series titles and left to manage the Dodgers after the 2007 season. Cashman countered that perception. "Our players are loose here now, and they were loose under Joe Torre," Cashman said. "They are prepared here now, and they were prepared under Joe. This team is deeper in pitching and deeper on the bench. This team is deeper in the bullpen and deeper offensively. And we're healthy right now." Torre has flourished with the Dodgers, who are back in the National League Championship Series for a second successive year for the first time since 1978. There's a real possibility of a Yankees-Dodgers, Girardi-Torre World Series. But that's getting a little ahead of the situation. There's still an ALCS to be played and a tough Angels team to be reckoned with. The Yankees have dropped two first-round series to Anaheim -- 2002 and '05 -- but this is the first time the two will be meeting in a best-of-seven series. "Whether that changes the dynamic is anybody's guess," Cashman said. "But we're about to find out."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.