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12/26/11 10:00 AM EST

Milestones dot Yankees' 2011 campaign

Rivera sets saves mark, Jeter reaches 3,000 hits in historic year

NEW YORK -- As the Yankees prepare to flip the calendar from 2011 to 2012, they'll do so with largely the same team heading back to the Bronx. They've been quick to remind observers that this roster still stands out among the best in the game.

Indeed, the Yankees finished the regular season boasting an American League-best 97 victories, wildly spraying bubbly all over their posh home clubhouse to celebrate their clinching of the AL East title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

It may have been odd to hear players like Mariano Rivera and Mark Teixeira trumpeting themselves as underdogs. But the Yankees took a certain amount of satisfaction in getting to the top of the pile, after many had hyped the re-tooled Red Sox as the team to beat in the division.

Of course, that gleeful feeling only lasted as long as the AL Division Series, with the Yankees' bats going cold in big situations and the Detroit Tigers -- behind the strength of Justin Verlander and friends -- heading on to the next round instead.

So the Yankees will reconvene in Tampa, Fla., come February, preparing for another push at a 28th World Series title. Their pitching rotation continues to be an area that seeks improvement, but general manager Brian Cashman has no qualms about the run production of his lineup -- despite what happened in the ALDS -- or with his bullpen, where Yankees relievers combined for an AL-best 3.12 ERA in '11.

Here were five of the biggest storylines that followed the Yankees throughout their 2011 campaign:

5. Heading home early

The fact that the lights went out for baseball at Yankee Stadium at the close of business on Oct. 6, was difficult to swallow for the Yankees, who continue to abide by the edicts of the late George M. Steinbrenner III. Regular-season success is essential and welcome. But if the campaign concludes without the Yankees hoisting the World Series trophy, it has ended in disappointment.

Alex Rodriguez waved through a Jose Valverde fastball to end the fifth game of the ALDS. And while Rodriguez was painted as a scapegoat for the playoff defeat -- coming after an injury-marred season that he defined as his most frustrating to date -- the three-time AL Most Valuable Player wasn't alone.

New York left 11 men on base in Game 5, suffering a 3-2 loss to end a series in which they actually outscored Detroit, 28-17. The Yankees also pinned a big piece of their postseason dreams on CC Sabathia, and the ace wasn't able to push them over the top.

Manager Joe Girardi said that he felt bad luck played a part in the Yankees' defeat. Hitting hadn't been a problem for most of the season. With both Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano jockeying for MVP consideration, the Yankees scored 867 runs during the regular season -- just eight fewer than the Major League-leading Red Sox.

Cashman suggested that no more was needed when he said the team wasn't in play for a big bat -- including turning down an opportunity to talk with the agent for Albert Pujols.

"Offense is not a problem with this club, despite what happened in the Detroit series here in the first week of October," Cashman said. "I don't think we're offensively challenged at all."

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4. A farewell to Jorge?

The year opened with the Yankees learning that Andy Pettitte would not be returning to the mound. By 2011's end, it appears that the Core Four have been whittled from a Key Three to a Dynamic Duo.

What was likely Jorge Posada's final year in pinstripes ended with tears after the Yankees' ALDS defeat, leading to uncertainty after a season that proved much more frustrating than the 40-year-old switch-hitter would have preferred. Posada hasn't decided if he wants to continue playing, but he has acknowledged that the door to the Yankees' clubhouse seems to be closed.

Told that the Yankees no longer considered him a catcher, Posada worked this spring to adjust to a role as a designated hitter. But his emotions boiled over before a May game against the Red Sox, in which the .165-hitting Posada reportedly asked out of a lineup that had him batting ninth.

Posada would also be benched before an August game at Fenway Park, told that the Yankees were going to begin trying other DHs. If his Yankees career is over, as it seems, he went out with a few high notes to enjoy -- including a game-winning, two-run single in New York's AL East clincher on Sept. 21 and hitting .429 in the ALDS against Detroit. Posada even got to slap the catching gear on one more time, replacing the injured Russell Martin in a Sept. 10 game at Angel Stadium.

3. The never-ending arms race

Pitching, as Cashman says, is the key to the kingdom. That stance hasn't changed, and even though Cliff Lee's decision to spurn the Yankees' offer of riches in favor of life with the Phillies was more of a 2010 story, it remains relevant today.

A hunt for starting pitching defined a lot of 2011, and the Yankees considered themselves fortunate in the way some aspects worked out. Unable to find a suitable upgrade in-season, the Yankees rolled with what they had, as Sabathia delivered a 19-win season and Ivan Nova burst on the scene with 16 victories.

That helped make up for what the Yankees felt they were missing from an injured Phil Hughes. And while A.J. Burnett (11-11, 5.15 ERA) was better than he had been in 2010, the Yankees should be able to count on a $16.5 million pitcher as more than just an innings-eater.

The biggest difference was where the Yankees hit pay dirt, taking low-cost fliers on Freddy Garcia (12-8, 3.62 ERA) and Bartolo Colon (8-10, 4.00 ERA). Of the two, Colon might have been the most amazing story. Out of baseball completely a year before, Colon, at times, looked unhittable -- as he seemed in a May 30 four-hit shutout at Oakland. The Yankees still have some interest in bringing back the 38-year-old Colon for 2012, and have already agreed to terms with the 35-year-old Garcia on a one-year deal.

Meanwhile, the Yankees seem largely satisfied with a bullpen that should again be a strength. It may not have been Cashman's call to sign Rafael Soriano, but they're glad he's in a mix that includes Rivera, David Robertson and -- eventually -- Joba Chamberlain.

2. Mariano stands alone

History was made at Yankee Stadium on the afternoon of Sept. 19, as Rivera recorded the record-setting 602nd save of his Major League career -- closing out the Twins to surpass Trevor Hoffman's lifetime total.

Fittingly, it was a 1-2-3 ninth inning for Rivera (the 208th of his career, according to STATS), and that seemed like reason enough to offer him sole ownership of the field.

In a moment that was both touching and awkward for Rivera, his teammates left the field and allowed Rivera to bask in his accomplishment on the mound, hearing waves of applause rain down from the stadium's decks.

"For the first time in my career, I am on the mound alone," Rivera said that day. "There was nobody behind me, nobody in front of me, and I'm still surrounded by so many people. I can't describe that feeling. It was priceless. It was a moment I didn't know could be like that. I was thanking God in that moment."

The 2012 season marks Rivera's final year under contract, and the 42-year-old closer has not said if he intends to continue pitching after honoring that commitment.

1. The captain joins the 3,000-hits club

Derek Jeter certainly knows how to rise to the occasion. And even if you were unfamiliar with the bulk of his career's work before the afternoon of July 9 -- and how would that be possible? -- you'd have to agree.

The captain became the 28th member of baseball's 3,000-hits club in style, belting a home run off the Rays' David Price as part of a 5-for-5 performance in a Yankees victory. Only Wade Boggs had previously homered for his 3,000th hit, and no player had accomplished the feat while wearing a Yankees uniform.

"It means a lot," Jeter said that day. "It's a number that has meant a lot in the history of the game, because not too many people have done it before. To be the only Yankee to do it ... to be the only Yankee to do anything is pretty special."

A subplot to the story was that Jeter had become a much different player following a three-week disabled-list stint in June for a strained right calf. Frustrated by his .260 batting average, Jeter worked on his mechanics with instructor Gary Denbo in Tampa, Fla., and hit .331 in 69 games after being activated.

Which Jeter will the Yankees be getting come 2012? Girardi believes that the changes can carry over, and has already said that he is heading to Spring Training expecting Jeter to be the Yankees' leadoff hitter.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.