Good now, Yanks on threshold of great
Impressive run in playoffs could end as one for the ages
ANAHEIM -- The central question so far in the American League postseason is: Just how good are the Yankees?
Frankly, "good" might turn out to be an adjective that is two or three sizes too small. But it is too early to ask: How stupendous are the Yankees? So a little postseason understatement must be risked.
It was easy to diminish, belittle, rationalize the Yankees' three-game sweep of the Twins in the AL Division Series. The Twins were very likely spent, physically and mentally, by their gutsy late-season surge that carried them all the way to Game 163 and a tiebreaker victory over Detroit for the AL Central title. But they had to go immediately from that to New York and the Yankees. And at no point in the process did they have the services of first baseman Justin Morneau, a slugger of proven MVP caliber.
But now, in the AL Championship Series, the Yankees' continued success is much harder to explain away. In fact, it is impossible to explain away.
The opponents are the Angels, who have twice eliminated the Yanks from the postseason in this millennium and have a 35-23 record against New York over the past six regular seasons. The Halos were certifiable trouble for the Bombers, and they had baseball's second-best record in the 2009 regular season and they were coming off a highly impressive ALDS sweep of their own former postseason nemesis, the Boston Red Sox.
But the Yankees stopped them twice in the Bronx. A 2-0 LCS lead is not insurmountable, but it is sizable. And the Bombers, viewed just as objectively as possible, certainly appear to be a strong 5-0 team in the 2009 postseason.
The Angels' position is that their own play has not been up their rigorous standards. That was certainly true in a surprisingly shoddy Game 1 performance. And even though the Angels performed much better in Game 2, they were undone by an error in the 13th inning.
For Angels manager Mike Scioscia, the big variable in this series remains his club's performance.
"We feel if we play at our level, we can beat anybody, and that's what we're going to keep focusing on," Scioscia Sunday said before his team worked out at Angel Stadium.
To the direct question of whether this Yankees team was significantly better than some of the recent New York teams that the Angels fared well against, Scioscia said this team was as strong as any recent team in baseball. But he said that it was not better than the Yankees teams of 2002 and '05, both of which were beaten in the postseason by the Halos.
"This team's as deep as any team I think in baseball and in baseball for a number of years," Scioscia said. "The team that we played in '02 and the team we played in '05 was every bit as strong as these guys are now, with probably some more experienced guys as far as playoffs, as far as starting pitching. You know, you had [Roger] Clemens, you had Andy Pettitte then, there was obviously [Mike] Mussina, those teams were terrific teams.
"So I don't know if [this team] is any stronger. Certainly right now, this team that we're playing is as strong as any team that's been in baseball for a number of years. But I don't feel it's any stronger than or any deeper than those teams that we've played before. They're all terrific teams."
Like whatever else Mike Scioscia says, this makes considerable sense. But one thing that stood out in the first two games of this ALCS, apart from a downturn in the Angels' level of play, was the fact that Yankee pitching essentially stopped Angel hitting.
It's a small sample size, but that's all we have so far. Two games into the ALCS, the Angels are hitting .154, slugging .205 and have scored four runs in 22 innings. True, they faced the best of the New York rotation -- CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett -- but that's what happens in postseason series.
And the lead that the Yankees have typically held at the closer position over the rest of mankind has not diminished. This was so striking Saturday night into Sunday morning. Mariano Rivera was asked to get seven outs and he delivered. And he did so with such poise and efficiency -- 25 pitches -- that he looked like 10 outs would have been well within his range.
Then, in the 11th, after the Angels had taken their first lead of the game, their own closer, Brian Fuentes, was asked to close. His save opportunity was blown three pitches into his evening. An 0-2 pitch to Alex Rodriguez got too much of the plate, the ball departing the playing field along with the best chance for the Angels to even the series.
With baseball's best offense, and if they can continue to pitch in this fashion, the Yankees will not be beaten this postseason. Everybody's offense slows down in October, because the pitching quality is higher among clubs that able to come this far. The Yankees have a 1.59 team ERA for the first five games of the postseason. That kind of thing can't last, but this is where the Yankees are better than they were in the recent past, this is where, they could leave "good" behind and get into some serious superlatives.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.