Wouldn't Bet Against the Yankees
Other than missing the playoffs in 2008, Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees have been to the postseason every single season since 1995. Through the years the venerable captain has been through all the wars, but none quite like this years.
With the newly instituted second wild card team, Joe Girardi’s veteran group knew the importance of locking up the division, but the pesky Baltimore Orioles stood in hot pursuit for weeks. On July 18th, the Yankees had built their lead in the division up to 10 games, and some already assumed that they punched their ticket to the postseason.
But Buck Showalter's bunch kept chipping away, until they finally caught up to the slumping and ailing Bombers on Sept. 4. Between then and the conclusion of the season, they tied the Yankees atop the division on ten different occasions, but never surpassed them.
Holding off the Orioles and making it back to the tournament shouldn’t be taken for granted, as the Bronx Bombers played some inspiring ball during crunch time to get there. "I don't try to compare the years, but most definitely, this was difficult," Jeter said. "Come into the last day of the season, nobody knows what's going on. We've been taking it one day at a time for quite some time."
After going 19-25 and seeing their lead in the division all but evaporate, the veteran laden Yankees picked it up when it mattered, winning 19 of their last 27 games. Many doubted this old and banged up bunch. Even ESPN’s Wallace Matthews said in his Sept. 12 piece that he “Wouldn’t bet on these Bombers.”
But this is a battle-tested group like no other, and arguably the most accomplished groups ever assembled in baseball history. "I think having that experience in there when it got to zero no one panicked," Girardi said of the division lead. "They had the same personality every day. The looseness, some of the guys were goofy."
The locker room is a proud one, full of leadership, and guys who have been there and done that. The active roster including the injured Mariano Rivera remarkably accounts for 826-playoff games, 84 All-Star appearances, 39 gold gloves, 27 Silver Sluggers, and ironically 27 World Series rings.
The group consists of a record eight guys with at least 200 career home-runs, three of the five active pitchers with at least 150 wins, and the rehabbing all-time saves leader. But none of these players want to celebrate what they have done, as the chance to reach baseball immortality is sitting right in front of them.
Through all the adversity and injuries the aging group persevered because they never hit the panic button, or let the situation get the best of them. In April promising young righty Michael Pineda went down to a torn labrum. A few days later the greatest closer of all time crumbled to the ground in Kansas City, tearing his ACL. Speedster Brett Gardner played in only 9 games before finally coming back last week.
That’s only part of it as throughout the year the injury bug also bit Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Ivan Nova, and Jayson Nix.
The lineup was so depleted that at one point that Girardi trotted out Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez, and Steve Pearce as cleanup hitters in the same week. But the Yankees kept scratching and clawing, slowly getting healthier as the games started to matter more.
The Yankees not only have experience on their side, but finally the dynamic roster that General Manager Brian Cashman envisioned is nearly whole, and it couldn’t have come at any better time. They arguably have the deepest lineup, and bullpen, to go along with a formidable four-man pitching rotation.
The old adage is that pitching wins championships, and for the first time since the days of Clemens, Wells, and Cone, the Yankees have to feel confident about their staff. Sabathia has reaffirmed over his last few outings that there is nothing wrong with his elbow, and that he is still the unquestioned ace. Meanwhile Pettitte has become old-reliable, and been just dandy in his 12 starts this season.
The all-time leader in postseason victories will start game two. He will be followed by the durable Hiroki Kuroda, who won 16 games to the tune of a 3.32 ERA. The staff will be rounded out by 27 year old Phil Hughes, who had a solid season despite being plagued by the longball. The 16-game winner is no longer a young-kid, and he could give the Yankees a big boost if he’s on his game.
While the rotation looks solid, the bullpen seems to be even stronger. Granted this appears to be the first postseason run without Rivera since the streak started eighteen years ago, the dependable Rafael Soriano will have to keep people forgetting about the injured legend. Despite having to fill Rivera’s colossal shoes, Soriano was outstanding all season long, posting 42 saves and a measly 2.26 ERA.
He will be set up by Robertson, who has been lights out recently, allowing a run in only one of his last twelve appearances. Next in line is the southpaw Boone Logan, who has appeared in an American League leading 80 games and performed admirably. They are the main ingredients out of Girardi’s bullpen, but he has some other options for when he reaches for his binder.
He can go to the former phenom Joba, who has been dealing of late, not allowing a run in his last 10 1/3 innings. For lefties he can bring in sidewinder Clay Rapada. The final spots will go to David Phelps and Derek Lowe over Cody Eppley. During the stretch run the rookie and former Red Sox have stepped up while Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia proved untrustworthy, and ineffective.
While Girardi has to feel confident in his pitching, the lineup is easily the toughest to navigate in the league. The top of the lineup consists of two future Hall of Famers, who aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. Jeter had a renaissance season leading the league with 216 hits, and a reinvigorated Ichiro has hit .322 during his 67 games in pinstripes.
Two of the better hitters to ever play the game are followed in the order by big boppers Rodriguez, Cano, Swisher, Teixeira, Granderson, and Martin. This current version of murderers row has no soft spots, and will be filled out by either the dangerous Raul Ibanez or Eduardo Nuñez.
The lineup has no holes, and the bench will also provide Girardi with some weapons to use late in games. At his disposal he will have Eric Chavez, Chris Stewart, Brett Gardner, and Jayson Nix, as veteran Andruw Jones was left off the roster.
It may have taken 162 games, but the Yankees achieved what they had set out to do from day one, win the division and have the best record in the American League. Even though Yankee fans feel as if it’s a natural birth-right to be in the playoffs, it’s not easy to win 13 division titles in seventeen years, or to make the postseason 17 of eighteen seasons.
Baseball is a fickle game and payroll only means so much; just ask the Angles, Phillies, or Dodgers, who were sent golfing on Wednesday along with the Astros, Red Sox, and Marlins. Or you can ask the Texas Rangers, who were sent home by the Orioles in the dreaded play-in, after blowing the 13 game lead that they held in the division on June 30th.
But this Yankee team avoided a similar fate and is one of only two clubs among the top seven in payrolls to still be playing, along with the Tigers. They avoided what would have been the biggest collapse in the storied franchise history, as the worst was in 1933 when Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey blew the six-game lead they had on June 6.
The grind of regular season was tough, but as the Captain said on Wednesday night, “Now the real season starts.” The franchise record 245 home-runs, 95 wins, or best record in the league now doesn’t mean a thing.
Despite having taken home just one World Series banner in the last eleven seasons, the expectation in New York remains to win a Championship, and a 28th World Series title seems like theirs to lose.