On Oct. 17, 2004, the Yankees took the field for the ninth inning in Fenway Park, leading the game 4-3 and the ALCS 3-0. They were three outs away from their seventh pennant in nine seasons, with the best closer in history on the mound. But then Kevin Millar walked, pinch-runner Dave Roberts stole second, Bill Mueller singled and the game was tied. Nobody knew it at the time, but the most recent era of Yankees postseason dominance had just ended.
It’s been almost five years, and the Yankees haven’t won a postseason series since. They went down in five to the Angels in 2005 and in four to the Tigers and Indians the following seasons. They finally missed the playoffs altogether last season. They lost for myriad reasons – because their defense was too porous, their rotation too shaky, their lineup too streaky. They were unable to keep the Angels down, unable to get up against the Tigers pitching, unable to concentrate in a swarm of midges.
Other teams have had similar postseason misfortunes, but with the Yankees’ payroll and reputation, their first-round failings have been particularly embarrassing. Missing the playoffs last season hadn’t dulled expectations at all. With the Yankees, it’s World Series or bust, and tonight they start their quest to get back to the Fall Classic.
In baseball, there’s no such thing as a sure thing. The last team to win the World Series after posting the best regular-season record was the historically great 1998 Yankees, who are the only 100-win team since 1986 to win a ring. All of the opponents are good teams, they’re all playing to win every game at any cost, and there are three levels to conquer. The team with the best chance to win the World Series is still more likely to not win the World Series. That’s the nature of the game, where the most you can say about any team is that they’ll probably win – but they often don’t.
Keeping that in mind, things have been set up almost perfectly for the Yankees this year. Several weeks ago, it appeared certain that the Yankees would have to get past the Detroit Tigers in the first round, with Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello lined up and ready to shut down the Yankees just as the ’06 Tigers and ’07 Indians did. But the Tigers blew a seven-game lead in the final month of the season and were forced to a one-game playoff in Minnesota for the division title, where they were toppled in 12 innings by the Twins.
Just as with the Tigers and Indians in the last two postseasons, the Yankees rolled over the Twins this season, winning three straight come-from-behind walkoff victories in May on their way to a 7-0 head-to-head record. But it goes beyond that. Since Ron Gardenhire took over the Twins in 2002, the Yankees are an astonishing 47-16 against the Twins, including 22-11 at the Metrodome. It’s the worst record of any AL team against the Yankees during that stretch.
More than that, the Twins’ rotation has been thrown off kilter by the necessity to push the season to its absolute limit. Their nominal ace, Scott Baker, will only be available to start Game Three after starting the playoff game yesterday, leaving rookie Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn to start the other four potential games. Both pitchers have been strong down the stretch, but neither is the type of shutdown pitcher that teams covet in the postseason. Both are as likely to be knocked out in the early innings as they are to pitch a gem, giving the Yankees another decided advantage.
But the Yankees aren’t likely to win just because they lucked into the best possible opponent. They would be more likely than not to win no matter who their first-round opponent was, because they’re simply the best team in baseball.
The rotation isn’t the best by any means, but at least in the first round there are no pushovers. CC Sabathia is the ace the Yankees have sought for years. He has pitched in a dominant fashion, particularly down the stretch, and established the “automatic win” reputation that Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson never quite lived up to during their stints in New York. A.J. Burnett starts Game Two having given up two or fewer runs in five of his last six starts – something he has accomplished in more than half his starts this season. Andy Pettitte faces Baker in Game Three, having turned his season around at the All Star Break, going 6-3 with a 3.31 ERA the rest of the way. The only question mark in their rotation has been Joba Chamberlain, who with the eight-day series format won’t have to make a start in the first round, being relegated to the bullpen, where he was so dominant in 2007.
The bullpen has also developed into strength for the team, with Phil Hughes emerging as a dominant setup man after being moved to the bullpen in midseason, posting a 1.40 ERA with more than 11 K/9. Alfredo Aceves was able to put out fires in the middle innings, then stay in the game multiple innings to give the team a chance to climb back into the game, vulturing 10 wins along the way. David Robertson became a valuable middle reliever with 13 K/9 and a 4.7:1 K/BB ratio, and Phil Coke provided solid work as a LOOGY, but was rarely effective outside that role. And, of course, the incredible Mariano Rivera posted another near-perfect season, his 1.76 ERA giving him an incredible 1.87 ERA in 511 innings since he turned 33.
And finally, the lineup was unequivocally the best in the game. The offense led the majors in hits, homers, walks, OBP, SLG, and of course, runs scored. Their lineup features eight hitters with an OPS+ above 120, with the only batter who fell short of that – their No. 9 batter Melky Cabrera – still hitting above average for his position. The incredible depth led to an almost slump-proof lineup. Only once did the Yankees go more than two games without scoring four runs, and in that one three-game stretch, they won all three games. They scored fewer than three runs just 24 times all season. They scored 10 or more 23 times. It almost seemed commonplace for the team to go most of the game without being able to buy a hit, only to explode in the final innings, making many of their wins especially dramatic.
The lineup might be even more dangerous if Alex Rodriguez continues to play in the postseason as he did in the regular season, something he hasn’t been able to do since that fateful night in Boston. Helping Rodriguez is the three off days in the series, meaning that Game Four is the only time he’d have to play back-to-back games. Coming off his Spring Training hip surgery, Rodriguez was given regular days off during the season to recover, and his results coming off of that rest were incredible. In 23 games after a day off, Rodriguez batted .350 with seven homers and 28 RBI, with a .448 OBP and .675 SLG, for an otherworldly 1.123 OPS. The off days allow the Yankees to leverage their bullpen to maximum effect as well, being able to pitch Hughes and Rivera in multiple innings without having to worry about losing them for the next game in four of the five potential games. The Yankees could potentially get a combined three or more innings a game out of two pitchers who’ve combined for a 1.61 ERA out of the bullpen this season, essentially turning games into six-inning affairs in a way that the Yankees haven’t seen since Rivera-Wetteland in 1996.
The Yankees can only hope that the 2009 postseason turns out as well 1996 did, but the path before them is not an easy one. They’ll have to beat a Red Sox team that has played them tooth and nail all year or an Angels team that has been the bane of their existence since the late ’90s to get to the World Series, and any opponent coming out of the NL will be a formidable challenge. Of all their challenges, the one the Twins offer will be the least difficult to overcome, but a challenge is presented anyway. They face the certain MVP of the league, a deep bullpen with an almost unhittable closer, a rotation that played a major role in the Twins’ epic comeback, and a lineup that can win games in every possible fashion. If momentum is a real thing, that certainly goes in the Twins’ favor. The overnight flight to New York won’t be a factor, as it is a turnaround that teams are making constantly during the regular season without suffering any noticeable consequences.
The Yankees are by no means a sure thing, but appear to be as close to one as there is in the first round. Still, a short series can turn on a single play, and even the worst player on the field can have a huge positive impact. But the Yankees have so many advantages, and so few disadvantages, it’s hard to say anything but it would be a surprise to not see them back in the ALCS, perhaps back in Fenway Park, trying to win that 40th pennant that slipped away five years ago.