Party time: Yanks kings of AL East
Pettitte's solid start, clutch hit by Matsui secure title
NEW YORK -- The expectation was always that the Yankees would bring championship baseball back to the Bronx, and though they had to know this celebration was coming for some time, it tasted just as sweet.
The chase for an elusive American League East crown ended on Sunday, as the Yanks locked up the division and home-field advantage for the playoffs in one tidy swoop. The Yankees christened the winning tradition of their new cathedral with a 4-2 victory over the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.
Andy Pettitte hurled six strong innings, Hideki Matsui came through with a clutch two-run hit, and the Yankees got homers from Melky Cabrera and Mark Teixeira en route to their 16th division title. They hope their 100th victory of the season is only a preview of events to come.
"It's been a while since we've won one here, and I think everybody is hungry," Pettitte said. "We're all trying to push each other and grind through. We want to bring another championship to New York. There's no better place to win than here."
In a season when the Yankees have been helped by big-ticket free-agent additions, it seemed appropriate that members of the so-called "Old Guard" -- the players who were here for the last World Series title, in 2000 -- vaulted them to the top.
Pettitte limited the Red Sox to two runs, leaving in line for the victory, and Mariano Rivera recorded the final out after Jacoby Ellsbury bounced softly back to the mound. The Yankees joyously bounced around the infield in celebration, quickly snapping up gear proclaiming them as the AL East champions.
"I think the way last year ended left a bad taste in all of our mouths," manager Joe Girardi said. "This organization is used to going to the playoffs and playing deep into the postseason. It was hard for all of us. It gave us all a chance to self-reflect and evaluate what we do, and it has paid off."
In the earliest days of the season, Girardi gathered his players in their Spring Training clubhouse and laid out the blueprint for the year ahead. Having endured a dark October in the final run-through across the street, Girardi made it clear that nothing less than finishing on top this time would be acceptable.
"Joe did a tremendous job from Spring Training," Rivera said. "He pulled us together, and we stuck together. That's the only reason why we accomplished all this. The front office did a tremendous job recruiting a bunch of great guys. That, plus what we have, is why it came as natural as this."
The Yankees declined to celebrate last week when they became the Major Leagues' first team to clinch a postseason berth, pointing to the reality that their main goal was still out there and that there would be a more appropriate occasion to spray the bubbly.
That set up a three-game weekend series against the Red Sox in which the Yankees could take care of their own business, with the added bonus of forcing the AL's likely Wild Card entry to watch.
"This is the first goal for us, to win the division," Derek Jeter said. "That's why we didn't celebrate when we clinched a playoff spot, because we had our sights on the division. Now we've got to regroup in a week and get back to work."
After starting the season winless in eight tries against Boston, New York won nine of its past 10 meetings to finish even.
"Well, you play the whole season to win, you know?" Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. "Like I told you guys earlier, they'd figure things out. They've got a good team, and that's why they're celebrating today."
With the champagne on ice underneath Yankee Stadium and a sense of anticipation in the air among a rain-soaked crowd of 47,576, New York fell behind in the first inning when Mike Lowell lined an RBI single off Pettitte's left foot. Pettitte loaded the bases again in the third inning but limited the damage by inducing Lowell to hit into a run-scoring double play and striking out J.D. Drew looking.
Cabrera cut the deficit to one run in the third inning, slugging Paul Byrd's first pitch into the right-field seats for his 13th home run, and Matsui gave the Yankees the lead in the sixth with a clutch two-run single off Red Sox reliever Takashi Saito.
Teixeira tacked on with an eighth-inning shot off Daniel Bard, his 38th, and said later that he has been blessed in his first season with the Yankees.
"I thank all my teammates for giving me this opportunity," Teixeira said. "It's been a rough last couple of years, figuring out where you're going to play, and then once you finally choose to play in New York, it validates it all."
Seeing the finish line ahead, Pettitte departed after six innings, and Girardi called on embattled reliever Brian Bruney -- once the club's primary eighth-inning option and now fighting for a spot on the playoff roster. Bruney recorded five outs and walked off to a loud ovation that he said was incredibly emotional.
"Everybody here was counting on me, and everybody let me know they appreciated it," Bruney said. "I would have loved to look up and give a thank you, but honestly, I had tears in my eyes and I couldn't. That's been my moment in baseball right now. It was an awesome feeling."
Phil Coke struck out Ortiz to end the eighth and Rivera worked around a hit and an error to secure his 44th save, sending players scurrying for eyewear and blasting bottles for what the Yankees can only hope will be the first of many wild celebrations to come.
"It's a stepping stone to do some special stuff around here," Pettitte said. "Hopefully we'll continue to do this and carry it into the postseason."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.