The Yankees stand as American League East champions for the 13th time since 1996 and for the 18th time in franchise history, ready to enjoy a well-earned brief respite after battling into the season's final day.

"I don't try to compare the years, but most definitely, this was difficult," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. "You come into the last game of the season, and nobody knows what's going on. We've been taking it one day at a time for quite some time, but it feels good to win."

The Yankees didn't know who their playoff opponent would be until Friday -- when the Orioles beat the Rangers in the AL Wild Card game -- and they'll travel to Baltimore to open the AL Division Series on Sunday.

The sprint to the finish line could work in New York's favor, as the club has been playing with a must-win mentality for the better part of a month.

"The guys have been through so many playoff games that every day, every series is like a playoff series," manager Joe Girardi said. "I think having that experience in there, when [the lead] got to zero, no one panicked. They had the same personality every day, the looseness; some of the guys were a little goofy, which I think is a good thing. It just says that experience pays off."

Wild Card vs. Yankees

The Yankees haven't hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy to celebrate a World Series title since 2009, but here are five keys for them to win it all this time:

Keeping Robinson Cano hot, at all costs: Cano is in one of those obscene hot streaks that come around only once in a while, and the Yankees may be fortunate that he has become locked in at the right time.

Cano wrapped up the regular season as though he was playing a video game with cheat codes activated, raking big league pitching for 24 hits in his last 39 at-bats, a .615 average.

"I didn't have that in mind, but I'm the kind of guy -- I'm always positive," Cano said.

The two-homer, six-RBI performance he turned in during Wednesday's 14-2 win over the Red Sox would have been the stuff of legend had it happened later in October.

"I know when you have a guy as hot as Robbie Cano behind you," Alex Rodriguez said, "you have one objective, and that's to get on base and not to disrupt what he's got going on. He was on fire."

Hitting with ducks on the pond: The Yankees have drawn attention for falling into extended funks where they just can't buy a hit with runners in scoring position. Those are part of flow of a 162-game schedule, but they're setbacks a club can ill afford during a compressed October schedule.

Cano seemed to cure his issues late in the year, and now the Yankees will seek similar contributions up and down the order. Rodriguez didn't have a single extra-base hit in his last 15 games of the season until Wednesday's fifth-inning double, but the Yankees are sticking with him as the No. 3 hitter because of his ability to get on base and his track record, believing that he -- eventually -- must be due to break out.

"I know how to get it done," Rodriguez said. "Don't worry about me. I'm going to be fine. This time of year, nobody cares about how you're feeling. You want to score runs, we want to win, that's all."

Rodriguez isn't alone in having the microscope fixed upon him. Mark Teixeira stranded eight men on base on Tuesday in Game 161, forcing Girardi to drop him in the order. Additionally, Nick Swisher's postseason struggles -- he's hit .160 in 100 at-bats with the Yankees -- are something that he desperately wants to correct.

"Vintage" CC Sabathia: The Yankees had some reason to fret early in September when their ace wobbled in his first starts back from the disabled list, as his velocity and sharpness didn't seem to be right following a long layoff.

But Sabathia answered a lot of questions in his last three starts of the regular season, hitting his stride with 24 innings of four-run ball (1.50 ERA), limiting opponents to a .155 batting average with 28 strikeouts and just four walks -- in short, ace-type numbers.

"CC's been getting better every time," catcher Russell Martin said. "Since the beginning of September, he's been getting better, it seems like, every outing."

At one point, Sabathia needled reporters who had stirred talk of his diminished velocity, saying that the only difference was his command. After serving two stints on the DL and finishing with exactly 200 innings pitched, Sabathia might have also saved some bullets to be fresher for the postseason.

"You guys keep asking me that," Sabathia said. "We'll see. I'll tell you when I'm done. I feel good. I'll always tell you I feel good. I'm ready to go."

Sabathia heads a Yankees rotation that will also ask for big nights from Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes.

Long ball, small ball: When the Yankees shut the doors of their clubhouse for an early-September team meeting at Tropicana Field, A-Rod spoke about taking "small bites" and playing the game a little bit tighter, as teams have to do against elite October pitching.

The Yankees are still not, as Girardi scoffed at the time, "the Bronx Bunters," but they have weapons in the tool kit other than just waiting around for three-run homers. Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Eduardo Nunez and Brett Gardner add an element of speed, and on occasion, the Yankees have been known to drop key bunts when the opportunity presents itself.

But, hey, when all else fails, the Yankees are still constructed to mash the ball. They're perfectly suited to take advantage of Yankee Stadium's hitter-friendly dimensions, as evidenced by the fact that the club hit a franchise-record 245 homers, paced by Curtis Granderson's final tally of 43.

Soriano slamming the door: The Yankees' season could have gone into a tailspin in May when they lost all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera to a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, but Rafael Soriano stepped into the closing role and recorded 42 saves in 46 opportunities, restoring order to the bullpen.

Make no mistake, the Yankees may miss Rivera's composure under pressure, as Soriano's playoff experience is limited to just 7 2/3 innings. The right-hander needs to lock down any and all leads while avoiding a recent bugaboo with the long ball; he has served up four homers in his last 12 innings.

"I don't feel pressure because it'll be the same game," Soriano said. "It's going to start on Sunday. I do what I do. I try to do it the same, maybe better, and I want to keep going and celebrate and win the championship."