It has been a long road to this point. The New York Yankees have had to overcome predictions, doubters and, yes, even themselves sometimes to put this team on the brink of bringing a 27th World Series trophy back to the Big Apple.
It hasn’t been an easy road. Going into Spring Training many so-called experts were split as to how well the Yankees would do in 2009. In Sports Illustrated 13 sportswriters predicted the AL East. Four predicted the Bombers would finish first, six chose the Boston Red Sox and three picked the Tampa Bay Rays. Six of the writers predicted the Yankees would be the wild card entry and only two felt New York would be crowned American League Champions.
Flip over to ESPN and only Tim Kurkjian selected the Yankees as the 2009 AL East Champs and the winners of the American League crown.
Then there was the whole Alex Rodriguez drama, which started just as Spring Training got underway. In January Joe Torre’s new book, “The Yankee Years,” had some derogatory things to say about A-Rod. Then in February, Rodriguez’s name was leaked out of a list of 104 players who had tested positive in 2003 for performance enhancing drugs during an MLB sanctioned screening in order to see how bad the steroid/HGH/PED problem was in baseball. There was no punishment attached to a positive test at the time. A-Rod came out and admitted his use.
Things continued to get worse for Rodriguez as an injury to his right hip was discovered and he learned he needed to undergo corrective surgery to remove a cyst and repair a partially torn labrum in the hip. The predictions were that A-Rod could miss up to 10 weeks of the regular season. On top of all of that a news story broke that Rodriguez was linked to New York madam Kristin Davis, who is allegedly the same peddler that supplied ex-governor Eliot Spitzer with hookers before his dalliances became public, causing him to resign from office.
The Yankees also had some damaged goods players they were worried about. Hideki Matsui was returning after having had surgery on both knees over the past couple of seasons and wasn’t projected to play the outfield until late June, early July. Jorge Posada was returning after a winter of recovering from having surgery performed on his throwing shoulder to repair a torn labrum. Lastly, Mariano Rivera had his throwing shoulder cleaned up and at nearly 40 everyone wondered how that would affect him.
The Yankees also started the new season with three new faces on the squad. In the off season New York signed pitchers CC Sabathia (FA – Milwaukee), AJ Burnett (FA – Toronto) and probably one of the best signings in recent years, first baseman Mark Teixeira (FA-Los Angeles Angels).
On paper the Yankees looked as formidable as any team, but the proof of their toughness would have to be established between the white lines.
The season began horribly for the Yankees. With Alex Rodriguez on the sidelines the Yankees staggered to a 13-15 record in their first 28 games. They failed their first major test of the season by getting swept in a 3-game series against the Red Sox in April (24-26).
Then on May 8 the fortunes of the Yankees turned around with the return of A-Rod to the lineup. The Yankees were facing the Baltimore Orioles and pitcher Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie was the same guy who outpitched Sabathia on opening day as the Orioles beat the Bombers 10-5.
Guthrie threw one pitch to Rodriguez and A-Rod knocked the ball out of the park. It was as if A-Rod was telling baseball, ‘I’m back and I’m on a mission.’ A-Rod’s return energized a struggling Teixeira who had had a rotten opening month. With A-Rod to protect him Teixeira’s home run and RBI production took a turn upward, as well as his batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage.
The Yankees looked like they were taking two steps forward and one step back. In their first meeting against the Angels, a club has always given New York fits; the Yankees took 2-of-3 at the Stadium. That euphoria quickly evaporated at the Red Sox came in for a two game set and took both games from the Yankees. The Rays also came in for two games following the Sox and they won both of their encounters.
Instead of getting down on themselves the Yankee players jump started their performance and began to climb out of the hole they had dug for themselves. After the Rays left town, saddling the Yankees with the aforementioned 13-15 record the Bombers went on a tear for the remainder of the month and after two months of play the Yankees were 29-21.
After June it was 44-32, but there were still some potholes in the Yankees’ road to the playoffs. They went to Boston for another 3-game series and the Red Sox continued their dominance by once again sweeping the Yankees out of town. New York’s 0-8 start against Boston was the worst start in franchise history. Until they could figure out their arch rivals winning the division, let alone making the playoffs, was going to an improbable task.
The Yankees ran into other glitches along the way. They dropped 2-of-3 against both the Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins. However, after leaving Florida the Yankees won 14 of 16 games giving them a huge boost as they flew into Orange County to take on the Angels in a 3-game series that would end the first half of the season.
As everyone recalls the Angels continued their mastery over the Yankees by sweeping them out of Angel Stadium. It was a frustrating setback going into the all-star break.
Apparently, the break was exactly what the Yankees needed. After play resumed following the all-star game the Yankees ripped off eight straight wins, and 10 of 11 before running into a bump in Chicago as the White Sox took 3 of 4 from the Bombers.
That hardly slowed the Yankees down as they went 19-6 over their next 25 games including taking 5 out of 6 from the Red Sox. In fact the Yankees continued to steam roll through the American League. In their final 32 games the Yankees put up a record of 21-11, and in doing so they took 2-of-3 from the Angels in a return visit to Anaheim, and then flew home to sweep the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium in their final regular season meeting. That series allowed the Yankees to split the season series at nine games apiece. That was an incredible feat for a team that started out 0-8. Additionally, the Yankees split the 10 games played against the Angels something that neither Yankee nor Angel fans had seen in quite a while.
The Yankees finished the season with the best record in baseball at 103-59 and won the AL East by eight games over 2nd place Boston. Going into the playoff rounds the Yankees were brimming with confidence.
In the divisional series against the Minnesota Twins the Yankees held it together to sweep the Twins 3-0. The series was a close match, but the Yankees pitching and timely hitting proved superior.
The championship series (no offense to the Phillies) the Yankees were pitted against the Angels. The Angels came into the series with a lot of confidence as well. They met the Red Sox, a team which had ousted the Angels from the playoffs 3 times this decade. However, in a ritual of exorcism the Angels swept the Red Sox into a early exit from the playoffs.
It was the Yankees turn to do the same with the Angels and in a great series the Bombers did just that taking the Angels out in 6 games behind the arms of CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, plus the bat of Alex Rodriguez.
That set up the 2009 Fall Classic against the Philadelphia Phillies, who many have called a mirror image of the Yankees. Good starting pitching and a powerful lineup.
The Yankees lost Game 1 facing Cliff Lee, who on that night was pitching like was from another planet. Sabathia took the hill for the Bombers, but wasn’t quite up to Lee’s standards. He made two mistake pitches to Chase Utley who knocked both of them over the wall. The Yankees lost 6-1 and in doing so dug themselves a hole. Of the last six World Series, the loser of Game 1 also lost the series. The Yankees had to right the ship.
Game 2 saw AJ Burnett starting for the Yankees and the Phillies countered with Pedro Martinez. Both pitchers were brilliant, but Burnett had just a little bit more as the Yankees nipped the Phillies 3-1.
Philadelphia was going home with a split, and had aspirations of a 3-game sweep over the Yankees. New York refused to cooperate, winning both Game 3, 8-5 and Game 4 with a dramatic 9th inning rally to drop the Phillies 7-4.
Tonight the Yankees have the opportunity to close out the Series and Philadelphia in order to take their first ride down the Canyon of Heroes in 9 seasons. The only thing standing in their way is Cliff Lee. If he pitches like he did in Game 1 the Yankees may have to wait a day. If AJ Burnett pitches like he did in Game 2 they may not. This game comes down to pitching and which team will be the first to blink.
If the Yankees can win just one more game they can rinse a lot of post season disappointment and history out of their mouths with some bubbly. In the immortal words of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, “Just win, baby.”
1 = 27.