Buster Olney wrote an excellent book pinpointing Game Seven of the 2001 World Series as the “Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty,” but the decline of the team may more accurately have had its origins a year later in the 2002 ALDS. The Yankees were the best team in baseball again, they had the best lineup, the best closer, and one of the best rotations. They were going to steamroll past the Angels, back to the World Series, back winning championships.
But the Angels exposed the Yankees as an old, slow, defensively terrible team without much bullpen depth, and in the years that followed the Yankees ceased to be “the” top team in the league to “a” top team, to just another good team, to just another also-ran. 2009 was the first time since that series where the Yankees could be pointed to as clearly the best team in baseball, so it was appropriate that the Angels stood in the way of their first pennant in six years.
It was, in the end, a closely fought series, though not necessarily a well-played one. The Angels battled the Yankees in every game, and had just a few plays turned differently, the series would have had a different outcome. The Yankees walked away with their 40th pennant, and these are the reasons why.
No, I don’t mean the Yankees’ greed for top free agents—that hadn’t won them much of anything in previous years, anyway. No, this is the greed of MLB in trying to secure as many prime-time games as possible by adding an extra day off to the League Championship Series, allowing the Yankees to use only three starting pitchers, negating the Yankees’ biggest weakness and one of the Angels’ biggest advantages.
The extra day allowed the Yankees to start CC Sabathia three times in seven games—only once on short rest—while using A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte on full rest in their two starts. They avoided any starts from Chad Gaudin or Joba Chamberlain. The Angels, on the other hand, had a four-man rotation set from the start, which would have given them a distinct advantage had the Yankees been forced to do the same.
Sabathia went on to shut the Angels down twice on his way to MVP honors, forcing the Angels to win every game against Burnett and Pettitte to stay alive, something they failed to do.
Limiting the boners
Going in, one of the storylines about the Angels’ success since Mike Scioscia took over the team, and success against the Yankees in particular, was how the Angels “played the game the right way,” and how they executed all the fundamentals. In the bottom of the first of Game One, that storyline was challenged.
With two out and Johnny Damon on second, John Lackey induced a weak popup to the left side from Hideki Matsui. Erick Aybar and Chone Figgins moved over to it, and then inexplicably let the ball drop between them without so much as reaching to catch it, scoring Damon. A throwing error on a pickoff in the sixth by Lackey led to the Yankees’ fourth run, and while Sabathia’s pitching ensured that the Yankees probably would have won anyway, it set a tone for the series.
In Game Two, Erick Aybar neglected to touch second base on an easy double play (which despite the controversy was an indisputably correct call), giving the Yankees a chance to win the game with a runner on second and one out (though they would fail to capitalize), and Maicer Izturis’s ill-advised attempt at a forceout in the 13th sent home the winning run when it went past Aybar.
Finally, in the decisive Game Six, trailing by just one run in the bottom of the eighth, Scott Kazmir threw away two sacrifice bunt attempts, sending home an insurance run and setting up another, sealing the pennant for the Yankees. There were other failings in the series, but those were the most important ones. The Yankees were generally able to limit their serious failures to an idiotic baserunning play in Game Four that Tim McClelland screwed up the call on, but ultimately didn’t matter much.
Angels fanboys thought they had caught something when they posted a video of Mariano Rivera spitting while holding the ball, and accused the greatest relief ace in postseason history of building his career on an illegal pitch. Ignoring that a spitter acts nothing like Rivera’s pitches do, the video itself showed Rivera’s spit passing nowhere near the baseball. Rivera laughed off the accusation when questioned about it, and continued to be his dominating self.
He finished off the Angels in the ninth in Game One, then kept the game tied for over two innings in Game Two. He saved the Yankees from a first-and-third nobody out situation in Game Three, and then in Game Six pitched two innings to finish off the game and the series.
Rivera wasn’t perfect in the series, but the near-automatic nature of his appearances has been a calming agent on the Yankees for years. In the postseason, where he pitches nearly every day, he’s one of the most valuable players the Yankees have. In a postseason where closers have suffered notable failures, Rivera’s value stands out even more.
In the ALCS, Hideki Matsui posted a measly .670 OPS. Mark Teixeira‘s was a puny .550, and Nick Swisher put up a pathetic .442. Still, the Yankees scored at least four runs in every game, and posted a team OPS of .835 in the series.
The Yankees’ lineup is so deep that even four horrid performances couldn’t shut them down. Sure, Joe Saunders kept them in check for most of Game Two, and John Lackey did the same for most of Game Five, but the lineup kept grinding away, putting guys on base, getting scoring opportunities, even if they couldn’t always cash in. The non-reliance on any one or two players put the Yankees in a position to win every game, and in the end the Angels couldn’t overcome that.
The Angels did their part to lose the series on offense, too. Vlad Guerrero, Howie Kendrick and Jeff Mathis had great series, and Torii Hunter had an okay series, but everyone else in the Angels lineup was horrid.
Bobby Abreu and Figgins combined for a .250 OBP and .455 OPS at the top of the lineup, and the rest of the team had a .453 OPS. The Angels survived on the strength of their starting pitching—it was their bullpen and lineup that let them down.
Once again, Alex Rodriguez had a magnificent series, his game-tying home run with the raindrops falling in the bottom of the 11th in Game Two may go down as the iconic moment of his career. Not once during the entire series did he swing at a ball and not make contact, and his 1.519 OPS would have made him a worthy co-MVP. His unclutch reputation is apparently dead and buried as he prepares for his first World Series, still seeking the one thing he has yet to accomplish in his career.
The Yankees move on to face the defending World Champion Phillies this week in what promises to be their toughest challenge yet. They’ve made it back to the World Series for the first time since Aaron Boone’s homer, but that year ended with a bitter defeat to the Marlins. The Yankees have played all year with a determination that nothing will be handed to them, and that attitude has served them well. It will be a necessary attitude to maintain in the coming games.