Welcome back: Yanks first into playoffs

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Mariano Rivera(notes) shook his head at what he once believed to be impossible.

By the time they play their next postseason game, the Yankees will have gone two years – almost to the day – between playoff appearances. Rivera had never missed an October. Neither had Derek Jeter(notes) or Jorge Posada(notes). Joe Torre had to go to L.A. to continue his postseason run.

“I missed it,” Rivera said softly. “I did. Yes, I did.”

Well, he is back. They all are.

Almost two years after they were eliminated by the Cleveland Indians in a four-game division series, and a year after 89 wins were good enough for only a distant third place in the American League East, the Yankees on the first day of fall secured their spot in this October. They are the first team in. As the Yankees batted in the top of the eighth inning against the Angels, the Texas Rangers lost in Oakland, meaning the Yankees could do no worse than the wild card. Later, they scored a run in the ninth, Rivera pitched the ninth inning and the Yankees beat the Angels, 6-5, to add a more celebratory feel to the night. They are six games ahead of the Red Sox and positioned to hold the home-field advantage as far as they go.

They arrive with a different manager, a new ace and a new offensive leader. That's not all. They arrive, general manager Brian Cashman said hours before they clinched, with a lot less of the other stuff the Yankees always seem to be dragging.

“There are no other storylines,” he said. “No last hurrahs. No trying to save someone's job or 'win one for the Gipper' or anything.

“It's real simple, not complicated at all. There's no soap opera stuff going on. It's all nice and simple and streamlined. It's about this group of players on this team that will be going head-to-head with the Angels, Red Sox and either the Tigers or Twins in a tournament held in October. That's all.”

They'll find something, presumably, or it will find them. Come Game 1, or 7, or 14, "Days of Our Lives" will have busted out somewhere. Alex Rodriguez(notes) hitting in the playoffs, by itself, is something, as is CC Sabathia(notes) pitching in the playoffs, as is Joe Girardi managing in the playoffs. Hank Steinbrenner lurks, as do the Red Sox, as does Torre on the Left Coast. A couple early losses and we'll see how team serene responds, though it's not as if it hasn't been chewed on by crisis before.

In the meantime, it all looks pretty good. In a division that was, again, supposed to be a huge challenge, the Yankees apparently will end the season with the best record in the game. They are 82-41 since early May, 44-19 since the All-Star break.

They have the best offensive lineup in baseball, they can pitch a little, and they hardly ever lose in their new ballpark. By many accounts, A-Rod has done nice work folding himself into the clubhouse and the team after a tumultuous spring and then a late start (other than the very famous girlfriend, but Jeter has one of those, too), and the new guys – Sabathia, Mark Teixeira(notes), A.J. Burnett(notes) and even Nick Swisher(notes) – have mostly lived up to their reps (and paychecks).

In fact, Sabathia leads the American League in wins and Teixeira will get his share of MVP votes, so that's $341 million spent pretty well right there. After equally ratty Aprils (Teixeira hit .200, Sabathia won once and had a 4.73 ERA), they've warmed to the New York experience.

“We came at the same time,” Sabathia said, “so it wasn't just one guy. I kind of had help in that.”

They didn't just spend their way out of their dark postseason, either.

Phil Hughes(notes), who flopped as a starter in 2008, has been an eighth-inning wonder setting up for Rivera. Robinson Cano(notes) reworked his swing over the winter and is again one of the more productive second basemen in the game, even more productive this season than, say, Dustin Pedroia(notes). Melky Cabrera(notes) is again a more than serviceable outfielder. Healthy again, so is Brett Gardner(notes). Posada and Rivera rebounded from offseason surgeries. Johnny Damon(notes) found life in his legs in a walk year. Jeter, whose fourth-inning single Tuesday gave him seven 200-hit seasons (a record for a shortstop), had one of the best seasons of his career, and Hideki Matsui(notes) managed a little stability over rickety knees.

Even then, the Yankees of '09 had to push their starters deeper into games, and they had to get from those starters to Rivera, and on many nights they did. Sabathia pitched way past 200 innings and Burnett could reach 200. If not for a weak shoulder lately, Andy Pettitte(notes) would have gotten there as well, and his six strong innings Monday night led everyone to believe he's good to go in October. That leaves only Joba Chamberlain(notes), and his ERA of more than eight over the past couple months, so the Yankees are hardly trouble free. But they're better.

Summing up the difference between last season and this one, Jeter said, “Pitching. Nothing more than that. That's it. You pitch, you win. That's the bottom line, man.”

Actually, the bottom line is getting in.

“It's not just a given,” Rivera said, which counts for news in the Bronx. “The playoffs, that's what it's about. It's not about the regular season, playing these games, coming to the field, playing, going home. It's about more than that. It's about the World Series. Yeah, I missed it. I know you can't always be there. But if I have a chance to make it, I'm going to take it.”

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