Yanks rediscover path to pennant
Unrivaled franchise finds itself one foe from ultimate goal
NEW YORK -- These are the Yankees, getting back to where they once belonged.
For the 40th time, a pennant has been won by New York's American League franchise. This number becomes much more impressive by comparison: In second place with 21 pennants is the Dodgers franchise, and it needed two different coasts to get even that close.
Baseball's most successful franchise had not been to the World Series in six years and has not won one in nine years. That's the blink of an eye if you're a fan of the Chicago Cubs. But for the Yankees, who lead both leagues every year in truly demanding expectations, it is a championship drought. The pennant half of it has ended now, via the Yankees' 5-2 victory over the Angels in Game 6 of the 2009 American League Championship Series.
Sunday night's deciding game, fittingly enough, was a bit of a cross section of things the Yankees have done very well. There were no home runs, so it wasn't a complete cross section. But there was pitching and defense and enough timely hitting to put the Bronx Bombers on top.
There is no more talented team in Major League Baseball than the Yankees, and 103 victories in the regular season had already made that point. But this did not mean that the pennant path was strewn with bouquets, even after an AL Division Series sweep of the Twins. The Angels had baseball's second-best record, and had swept the Red Sox in the ALDS. They had two impressive victories against New York in this series, but in the end could not extend the ALCS to a Game 7.
The Yankees were not without issues, but at the end of the day, even when their offense sputters a bit, it is still baseball's best. Andy Pettitte polished his reputation as a top-shelf postseason pitcher with exactly the kind of start that this situation required. His 16th postseason victory made him the all-time leader in that category. He departed the game in the seventh to a richly-deserved standing ovation, the Yankee Stadium crowd of 50,173 appreciating not only this night's work, but the entire body of work.
There had been some accidents along the bridge to Mariano. New York's young setup men, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, were having some struggles and concern had mounted, particularly as the Yankees' edge in this series dwindled to 3-2.
Not to worry. Chamberlain got the two outs he was supposed to get in the seventh inning of Game 6. And then manager Joe Girardi took the shortcut across the bridge to Mariano Rivera, bringing in the closer to start the eighth for a six-out save.
Had Rivera failed in this task, Girardi could have been subjected to a round of second-guessing that might have gone on eternally. Rivera, of course, did not fail, because he is the best postseason closer in history.
Simply the best
But it was an adventure. Rivera had not given up a run in the postseason at home since Game 2 of the 2000 World Series against -- remember this one? -- the Mets. Here Rivera gave up a run and a 3-1 Yankees lead was trimmed to one run.
But then, New York was immensely aided in its efforts by the Angels' sudden inability to play defense against bunts. Two bunts in the eighth inning were accompanied, back-to-back, by egregious Angels errors, which helped to pad the Yankees' lead to three. But you still have to credit the Yankees for diversification. These errors wouldn't have occurred without New York playing small ball and getting the bunts down in the first place. It is good to have tremendous power, but every once in a while, scoring two runs without a hit can be very beneficial.
The bonus in winning Game 6 is readily and happily apparent for the Yankees. CC Sabathia, ALCS MVP, and with three consecutive outstanding starts to his postseason credit this October, will be able to pitch Game 1 of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies and their own lefty ace, Cliff Lee, on Wednesday night.
There is no overstating how good Sabathia has been, or how important he has been to the Yankees. The past two postseasons have been characterized by one dominant pitcher rising above the competition and making his team a virtual lock in his starts -- Josh Beckett in 2007 and Cole Hamels last year. Sabathia is in position to take his place as a pitcher who has been at his absolute best when the games meant the most.
And it was a nice touch that in victory, Girardi was humble and genuinely grateful, thanking everyone from principal owner George Steinbrenner on down for their roles in this triumph.
"You know, I've said I'm extremely blessed to have this opportunity," Girardi said. "I feel my life has been one big blessing. The things that I've gotten to do, God has really blessed me. But being here as a player and going through that and the excitement and the anticipation and then getting a chance to do it as a manager, I'm extremely happy for the guys in that room, for the Boss, his children, all the people that put all this hard work in to put this team together. [General manager] Brian Cashman has done a great job. Our developmental people have done a great job. You think about all the people that have come up and played and had an impact on our season so far. All the young kids. It's just been a real team effort."
For six months of the regular season and two rounds of the postseason, yes, indeed, the Yankees have once again been blessed. They are talented above and beyond the level of the competition, and they are playing up to that level of talent. But to be really be the Yankees, hey, it's this next best-of-seven series that makes all the difference.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.