It was Nov. 4.
The city was still in mourning, but for almost a month the Yankees had provided a welcome distraction to a city that needed it. They had come back from a 2-0 series deficit against the A’s in the division series, trounced the 116-win Mariners in the ALCS, and two nights in a row, they had tied the Diamondbacks with a two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. Now they were three outs away, with the greatest closer in history on the mound, with the bottom of the Arizona lineup at the plate. The dynasty of the late 1990s was about to extend into the 21st Century with a fourth consecutive World Championship. The parade would not be through the Canyon of Heroes this year—that was too close to Ground Zero—but there would be a parade, and the city needed a parade. They were just three outs away.
But they wouldn’t be back, not with that team, anyway. Some of the core would retire that offseason, some would be allowed to leave as free agents, and eight years later, just four players from that 2001 team remained: Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Rivera.
Last Wednesday was Nov. 4, and again Rivera took the mound needing three outs to clinch the World Championship—the first time in those eight years the Yankees had come so close. This time there was no disaster, and an easy grounder to Robinson Cano clinched the 27th Championship that had eluded the Yankees in Arizona.
The Phillies entered the World Series having lost just one game in each of their previous five postseason series. The team featured a power-laden lineup that was perhaps more dangerous than any the Yankees had faced all year. They were not intimidated by the Yankees at all, and before the series their shortstop Jimmy Rollins had boldly predicted that Philadelphia would win the series in five games, “six if we’re nice.” Instead, they went down in six, and if not for the performance of their ace, Cliff Lee, may well have been swept.
A large part of the relative ease with which the Yankees toppled the Phillies lies in the putrid performance of the top of Philadelphia’s lineup. Chase Utley hit five home runs in the series to tie a record, but four of those home runs were solo shots, because the guys in front of him weren’t getting on. Rollins, Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard combined for a .191/.296/.279 line surrounding Utley—something to which the Yankees, starting lefties in four of six games, likely contributed, but can’t be entirely credited for.
Philadelphia’s bullpen played a large role in the Yankees’ victory, too, combining for a 5.74 ERA, the low point being Brad Lidge’s three-run ninth inning implosion in his one and only appearance after the Phillies had tied Game Four in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The Yankees’ performances were almost the opposite of the Phillies’. Their No. 3 hitter, Mark Teixeira, had an awful series, except for a game-tying home run in the second game of the series. Jeter and Johnny Damon combined for a .388/.434/.490 line, and while Alex Rodriguez hit only .250 and drew just three walks, his home run in Game Three and ninth-inning double in Game Four were crucial hits in the series. And, of course, Hideki Matsui, the series MVP, was otherworldly. Starting just three games and getting one pinch-hit plate appearance in the other three, Matsui was still the most potent run producer in the series, hitting .615 with three homers and eight RBIs—two of those homers giving the Yankees leads they would never relinquish.
Pitching was more hit-or-miss for the Yankees. CC Sabathia struggled with command in both of his starts, but was able to avoid giving up more than a run in any one inning, and three of the five runs he gave up were on Utley’s homers. A.J. Burnett was dominant in his Game Two start, but awful in his Game Five start. Pettitte was, at best, OK in his two starts.
Joe Girardi lost faith in the Yankees’ bullpen as the playoffs went on, leaning more heavily on Rivera than he had planned to, but in the series much of the bullpen was quite good. Joba Chamberlain gave up the game-tying home run to Pedro Feliz in Game Four, but gave up only one other hit in his three appearances, while striking out four with one walk. Damaso Marte redeemed his season with five strikeouts in four appearances, including a Game Six strikeout of Utley that May have sealed the series. Alfredo Aceves and David Robertson kept the Yankees within striking distance in what at first appeared to be a Phillies blowout in Game Five, although the comeback came up just short. And Rivera was almost perfect in closing out all four Yankee wins, two of them with more than three outs.
The Phillies certainly can point to any of a number of dreadful performances and declare they should have made a better showing in the series—in the clubhouse after Game Six, Rollins told reporters that the Phillies were better than the Yankees—but New York overcame dreadful performances themselves. Cano, Nick Swisher, Posada and Teixeira combined for a .167/.244/.282 line after going .289/.368/.528 in the regular season, but the team still scored more than five runs a game in the series.
In the end, the Yankees won because they were the best team, and they played better. You can say whatever you want about how they assembled their roster in becoming the best team, but they very clearly were the best.
This year may have been the last shot this team had at winning the World Series; almost every player on the roster saw an improvement over his 2008 performance, and for many of the team’s stars, the effects of time are overdue. That’s not to say the Yankees won’t be back—they have money to spend and there are some talented players on whom they might spend this offseason, and they may even get back by standing pat. But unlike 2001, when the core of Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera had spent their entire careers knowing almost nothing but championships, the last eight years shows that no matter how much you spend and how much talent you hoard, the final triumph is never an easy one to achieve.