10/12/10 11:18 PM ET
Yanks ride experience into ALCS vs. Rangers
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
A September swoon did little to dissuade those fears, leading some to fret that the defending World Series champions would be down and out in early October. Everyone should have known better.
Once the bell rang for the playoffs, the Yankees returned to their usual tricks, making quick work of the Twins in the AL Division Series and waiting to learn that they would be playing the Texas Rangers in the AL Championship Series, which opens Friday in Arlington.
"We've played well," said Yankees captain Derek Jeter. "We pitched well, we played good defense, we got some timely hitting. That's a good combination. We're playing well at the right time for this series. It doesn't make a difference what you do. It all starts over. You've got to be clicking on all cylinders."
The Yankees might have preferred a different course, naturally, because their stated goal from the first days of Spring Training was to win the AL East as a stepping stone toward repeating as world champions -- aiming to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Joe Torre's Bombers wrapped up their three-peat in 2000.
It would have painted a changed playoff scenario, but injuries got in the way down the stretch.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi made the decision that it was more important to have a healthy team for the playoffs than to win regular-season games, and so the Yankees limped to their first losing September in a decade and chugged to the finish line with 17 losses in their final 26 games, watching the Rays lock up the East by a game.
"Some of our guys couldn't play, and I think people took that as we weren't trying," Girardi said. "Believe me, we were trying. We were trying to win our division. I mean, we wanted home-field advantage. We love playing [at Yankee Stadium]."
Having important cogs like Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner all feeling healthy and strong made the September planning appear wise. The stretch run dispatched New York to Minnesota, knowing they would not have any home-field advantage for the postseason, but against the Twins it didn't seem to matter.
"We really battled the last part of the season trying to win the division," Teixeira said. "It didn't work out for us, but we're going to have to win games on the road anyway. It really doesn't matter. It's going to be a good series."
Concerns about the Yankees' starting rotation seemed unfounded in the three-game sweep of Minnesota, as the shakiest effort they got in those contests actually came from their ace. CC Sabathia gave up four runs -- three earned -- to Minnesota in six innings in Game 1, but Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes both stepped up with terrific outings to get the job done.
"They didn't show me anything [new]; I guess they showed you guys," said Sabathia, who will start Game 1 at Rangers Ballpark on Friday. "We knew what we had in here. You look at Andy's track record, you look what Phil's done all year. His demeanor, how laid back he is, you knew he'd be able to handle this just fine."
New York's numbers improved markedly in the ALDS compared to that September skid, with bloated ERAs trimming to the expected range and batting averages fattening up. In all, the Twins only managed six runs against Yankees pitching (a 2.00 ERA), while striking out 18 times and walking just seven.
"We never doubted ourselves. People in this clubhouse never doubt," said catcher Jorge Posada, who added that he believes the Yankees are still the best team in the Majors.
When someone asked Posada if the Yankees' pitchers were doing a better job holding baserunners, compared to the fiasco in the season's last days when the Red Sox stole four times in an inning on a Mariano Rivera-Posada battery, the veteran catcher scoffed, "[We're] keeping them off the bases."
And the hitters made sure there were plenty of ducks on the pond. The Yankees averaged 5.6 runs per game in their 17-run output against Twins pitching, a level of production more befitting the Major Leagues' most potent offense, owning a .314 batting average, .351 on-base percentage and a .514 slugging percentage.
Though it appeared early in the series -- and certainly in September -- that a repeated inability to knock in runners in scoring position could be an Achilles' heel in the postseason, the Yankees went 9-for-25 (.360) in those situations.
The Yankees also welcomed contributions from newcomers, molding seamlessly into the veteran core. Curtis Granderson has been a changed player since a mid-August revamp of his swing, batting .455 (5-for-11) with a double, triple and three RBIs in the sweep. If an ALDS MVP award existed, he might have won it.
"It's October, you turn the page," Granderson said. "You've got months over the season where you're going to play well and some where you're not. But with 162 games, I think there was just too much focus being made on the last three to four weeks of the season instead of six months as a whole.
"We did what we needed to over six months to get to the playoffs, and that's what we understood. Once we get to October, it's a fresh start."
Lance Berkman, who homered and doubled in Game 2 at Target Field, and Marcus Thames, who belted a two-run homer in Game 3, also jumped into headlining roles during the series, showing the depth of the Yankees.
"That's kind of how this team has been built the whole year," Girardi said. "That we expect everyone to produce. We don't just rely on one or two guys, and we have a lot of depth on our club. You think about the production we got from our two DHs in this series -- pretty good. And we rely on a circular lineup."
Now comes a new challenge against the Rangers, with whom they split eight meetings in 2010. New York swept a three-game series from Texas at Yankee Stadium from April 16-18 and did not see them again until August, splitting a two-game series in Arlington before being swept in a three-game set at Rangers Ballpark in September.
But the Yankees believe they have the firepower to get past this next challenge as well. General manager Brian Cashman said that the Yankees have decided to change their approach from last year's playoffs, when New York was able to ride just three starters all the way to a crown.
Thanks to a revised schedule, that no longer seems to be the most prudent course of action, and so the Yankees will be placing faith that A.J. Burnett -- 10-15 during the regular season with a 5.26 ERA, the worst-ever for any Yankee with more than 180 innings -- can return to form.
"I've seen A.J. Burnett succeed and obviously I've seen him struggle," Cashman said. "I know what he's capable of just like I knew what Phil Hughes was capable of. We saw that. It's just another question yet to be answered."
Burnett beat the Rangers on April 17 this year and finished 1-0 with a 2.50 ERA in three starts against Texas, and the Yankees will also have Sabathia (1-0, 1.50 ERA in one start vs. Texas), Pettitte (1-0, 2.25 ERA in one start vs. Texas) and Hughes (one scoreless inning of relief) against the Rangers in some order.
They'll look to get the ball to the Yankees' bullpen and bridge it along to closer Mariano Rivera, who converted two saves against Texas but also blew one and took a loss in 2010.
"It just comes down to who plays the best and executes the best and has a little bit of luck," Cashman said. "All of these teams, [including] Minnesota, are qualified to represent this league in the World Series. They're very dangerous opponents, every single one of them, and I like to think they feel the same way about us."
The Yankees feel that their X-factor is experience, which seems to be a major reason why they were so easily able to flip the switch against the Twins after having such a difficult run against their last regular-season opponents.
"There's a lot of experience in that room, and our guys have been through a lot of games like this," Girardi said. "As many playoff games as these guys have played in, you know they know how to prepare. You know that they're not going to get too high or too low based on one game, one at-bat. And I think that really helps our guys because of the preparation and the experience."
They will need to do it again when they arrive in Arlington, knocking off the rust of the long wait for the more difficult ALCS to be settled.
But as they soaked the carpet of their opulent clubhouse after sweeping Minnesota, many players spoke of the confidence they feel in just knowing that they have been there and done it before -- and believing they can do it again.
"We're a very confident team," Teixeira said. "When you have veterans that have won championships, this is pretty much the same team we had last year. We have a few different guys here and there, but they've all done great. We've welcomed them with open arms and hopefully they're going to have the same ride we had last year."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.