09/23/09 4:50 AM ET
First of Yanks' many goals crossed off
Truest test of club's superiority will come in postseason
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
In his second season at the helm of the club, manager Joe Girardi's sights are on winning the division first and then bringing home the 27th World Series championship. With that mission outline in place, making the playoffs is only stage one.
"That's the expectation here every year, and that's obviously very pleasing," Girardi said. "We're going to be playing in October, but there are still some things we want to accomplish before the season ends."
The Yankees became baseball's first team to lock up a berth on Tuesday, learning their fate in the eighth inning while Jorge Posada was batting against the Angels' Matt Palmer. Some 400 miles up the California coast, the final out was recorded, as the Rangers lost to the Athletics, 9-1.
Yankees captain Derek Jeter admitted that New York's 14th postseason entry in 15 years held some significance after the club went dark last October, closing the original Yankee Stadium with only a regular-season game. The Yankees ensured that the stadium's successor will stay open for business after its first 81 games of service, and that in itself is notable.
"It's almost like you're a kid and your parents don't let you go out to play," Jeter said. "You're watching everyone outside the window because you're in trouble. That's what it felt like. Now we're off punishment and you can go back out there.
"Our goal is always to win the division. You've got to clinch a spot, but our goal coming into the season was always to win the East. If we continue to play well, we've got a chance to do that. We've acknowledged the fact that we're in the postseason, but you don't celebrate yet."
The Yankees have accomplished the first checkpoint with an all-around attack that has seen them lead the Major Leagues in victories, keeping them in first place in the AL East for 78 days -- including each of the past 65. Big-ticket newcomers CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira have all been key contributors to that success.
"I'm very proud of the journey that we've taken so far," Teixeira said. "A lot of times, it's not the destination. You're not going to see us all going crazy tonight because we made the playoffs, but it's the hard work we've put in since February. That's what is most satisfying."
Alex Rodriguez missed the first month of the Yankees' season while recuperating from right hip surgery, but he made a key play to save a run in Tuesday's game and drove in the winning run.
"Just shaking hands with the guys and giving a few hugs takes me back to where I was in February and March, in Colorado and Tampa," Rodriguez said. "It just feels good to be part of it and contribute a little bit."
After the final out was recorded in the Yankees' 6-5 victory over the Angels, Girardi addressed his club briefly behind closed doors. There was no popping of champagne, just pats on the back and handshakes around the room.
"I just congratulated them and expressed that there's still work to be done," Girardi said. "Let's keep going. There's still a lot of baseball to be played. We have 10 games left, and we know what we want to do. There's obviously excitement about being in the playoffs. It's your first goal. But there's other goals."
The Yankees improved to 96-56 and hold a healthy lead on the Angels (90-61) for home-field advantage in the postseason. The Yankees are likely to select the "A" schedule for the AL Division Series, which provides an extra day of rest between Games 1 and 2.
If the standings hold as currently comprised, the Yankees would play the AL Central winner -- the Tigers lead the Twins by 2 1/2 games -- in the first round and hope to advance to play either the Angels or Red Sox in the second round.
"You hope you play them -- that means we're there," Jeter said. "But it's still too early to think about matchups. It's important for us to play well against good teams."
New York's magic number to clinch the AL East title fell to any combination of six Yankees victories and Red Sox losses. The Yankees will host Boston in a three-game series that opens on Friday in the Bronx.
"I wish we could be a bit more happy, but we're still out there trying to win a division," Johnny Damon said. "We're glad that we get a chance to get to the postseason, but we would really like to win our division, and the sooner, the better.
Brett Gardner -- who scored the winning run on Tuesday when he singled, stole second base and came home on Alex Rodriguez's sacrifice fly -- said that he's looking forward to scoring his first taste of the playoffs.
"We've worked really hard this year from the first day of Spring Training," Gardner said. "I'm very excited to know that we're going to be playing into October, but we've still got a lot of work to do. Hopefully, we'll clinch the division before the season is over and get right to the playoffs."
The Yankees will certainly begin keeping bubbly on ice as the magic number whittles down toward zero, but that splashy celebration -- wherever and whenever it takes place -- would pale in comparison to the ultimate prize, the one the Bombers have thirsted for since 2000.
"Winning the division would definitely make us a little bit happier, but unfortunately, that doesn't really seal the deal for us until we win the World Series," Damon said. "Our expectations are high, and we don't want to get too overly excited until we win the World Series."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.