Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Preparing For That Title Run

It sure didn't take long for the nay-sayers to come out.

You know, the ones who said the Yankees would never survive their three West Coast trips this year, or survive a brutal second-half schedule, or had the pitching or bullpen to win a division crown.

Moments after Hideki Matsui's two-run single, Mark Teixeira's and Melky Cabrera's homers, and Andy Pettitte's six strong innings led the Yankees to a 4-2 victory Sunday and the AL East division title for the first time since 2006, they were out saying they Yankees would choke in the playoffs, that CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez always fail to get it done in the postseason, all that kind of garbage.

But it's clear these doubters just haven't been paying attention. The don't know this team and they don't understand baseball playoff history.

Because it's clear to anyone who's been watching closely that this Yankees team is not the same as the ones that have failed in the first rounds in 2006, '07 and '08.

Heck, last week alone should have proven that as the Yankees (101-56) took two of three against the Angels to win a series in Anaheim for the first time since May 2004 before sweeping the Red Sox over the weekend to even the season series at 9 after losing the first eight games of the season against them.

Perhaps the difference in this team is because the Yankees missed the playoffs last season. While failing to make postseason for the first time since 1995 stunk, it does seem it provided a clean break from Joe Torre's Yankee Years.

This year, it did not seem as if the Yankees were playing in the shadow of the championship teams of the late 1990s and 2000. This team played free and loose. Maybe it's because the roster has been turned over so much since 2001.

Perhaps it was the spring training billiards outing, or Sabathia taking teammates to Magic and Cavaliers games, or A.J. Burnett's walk-off whipped cream pies. Maybe it was just the attitude created by an ability to win games in a number of different ways. Perhaps it was all of the above.

Maybe that explains why this team celebrated so hard Sunday.

But no one can deny that there simply is something different about this team.

And unlike the '06, '07 and '08 teams, this year the Yankees actually have the pitching to match their overpowering lineup. Since the All-Star break the Yankees have gone an AL-best 50-19 with a 3.98 ERA, 562 strikeouts, .245 BAA, 1.30 WHIP, .316 OBP and .699 OPS. They also allowed 66 homers, tied with Oakland for fewest in the AL.

The pitching staffs of those recent past Yankees teams never came close to doing anything like that. Instead, they relied on potent offenses to carry them through the marathon that is the regular season ... and it cost them in the playoffs.

But not anymore. Yes, the Yankees' offense is still overwhelming, leading the league in runs (891), homers (237), OBP (.363) slugging (.480) and OPS (.843), while tying the Angels for first in batting average (.285). But now they have the type pitching they had when they made six World Series between 1996 and 2003.

Not that the doubters will acknowledge that. Instead, they'll point to a lack of playoff experience for many players such as Burnett, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Nick Swisher and even Mark Teixeira. They forget that in the playoffs, that doesn't matter. The 2003 Marlins, which had a roster with nearly no playoff experience, won the World Series. Or the 1987 Twins. Or 1986 Mets. There are plenty of examples.

They point to the postseason failures of Sabathia (ALDS: 2-1,6.14 ERA; ALCS: 0-2, 10.45) They ignore that Sabathia had to pitch 241 regular season innings in 2007 , 253 last season to lead his teams to the playoffs. Think that didn't have an effect? Guess again. Here's what Sabathia told The Hartford Courant:

"I was as drained mentally as I'd ever been," Sabathia said. "My body was OK, my
arm felt fine. I'd do it again if I had to."

The doubters also will point to A-Rod's postseason struggles starting in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. They ignore his strong postseason's performances before that and the different approach that he's taken throughout this season, which I expect will continued over to the playoffs.

They also forget that it is not uncommon for hitters to run hot and cold from one postseason to the next. Take Mickey Mantle, for example. He had a World Series record 18 homers and handful of rings. No one would ever accuse him of being a postseason choker. Yet in 1954 he hit .200 with one homer and one RBI, and in 1961 he hit .162, 1962 .120 and 1963 .133 with one homer and one RBI.

Steroids did wonders for Barry Bonds in the regular season, but they didn't help him in the postseason until 2002 when he hit .294 on the NLDS, .273 in the NLCS and .471 in the World Series. He was terrible before that and terrible again in 2003 when he hit .222 with no homers in the NLDS.

The reality is that the past playoffs mean absolutely nothing on the present. If it did, would Mariano Rivera have come close to allowing that World Series winning single to Luis Gonzalez in 2001? Would he have blown that save against the Red Sox in 2004?

So while the doubters focus on the past, we'll just worry about the present.

The Yankees are getting ready and tuning up. Even their Spring Training B lineup was able to beat the the lowly Royals 8-2 Tuesday on the first career homer by Ramiro Pena and a grand slam by Robinson Cano.

The Yankees have accomplished their first goal this season. They have three more to go. And they have all the tools to get there.

Runners In Scoring Position
1-for-5 (.200)
6-for-11 (.545)
408-for-1,505 (.271)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
191-for-686 (.278)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
343-for-1,232 (.278)
Vs. Red Sox
45-for-204 (.221)

Up Next
Tuesday vs. Royals, 7:05 p.m., YES
Anthony Lerew (0-1, 3.86) vs. Burnett (12-8, 4.19)

Burnett's father came through triple-bypass surgery in good shape Monday, so A.J. will take the mound looking to build off his last two starts, which were strong. The Yankees won't tax him, but are looking for five or six strong innings.

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