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The answer, of course, begins—and, many non-Yankees fans would say, ends—with money. The Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008, and team management responded to their postseason dry spell with typical Yankees restraint. They bought the best starting pitcher on the market (CC Sabathia, for $161 million over seven years), a No. 2 starter with perhaps the best pure stuff in the league (A.J. Burnett, for $82.5 million over five years) and a switch-hitting, power-hitting, Gold Glove first baseman (Mark Teixeira, for $180 million over eight years). They traded for a flaky outfielder with the versatility to play four positions and a keen eye (Nick Swisher). It was a full, and very expensive, makeover.
But a few other things happened too. Derek Jeter worked with a new fitness trainer who helped him restore some of his flexibility, especially in his left hip. This may have helped him have one of his best offensive seasons. He also showed a sudden and shocking improvement in the advanced defensive metrics favored by statheads. Jeter had a negative Ultimate Zone Rating—a measure of how many runs a player saves with his defense—every year since the statistic was invented in 2002. This season, however, UZR estimated that Jeter saved the Yankees 6.4 runs more than the average defensive shortstop, a staggering turnaround for a 35-year-old middle infielder.
"I'm leery of defensive numbers," one AL G.M. says, "but there's no question that he was better defensively this year."
Alex Rodriguez, after years of underperforming in October, is crushing the ball during these playoffs. The knock that A-Rod wasn't a pressure player was always suspect; his cumulative postseason numbers were awfully similar to Jeter's. But the Yankees third baseman concedes that after a nightmarish spring training, when he admitted using steroids as a younger player and underwent arthroscopic hip surgery, he simplified his approach: See the ball, hit the ball, as the expression goes. "I know you guys are looking for something profound," A-Rod says. "I'm just in a good place."
Other stuff happened too. The Yankees, against the odds, stayed remarkably healthy for a franchise that leans so heavily on its veterans. Johnny Damon, at age 35, had one of his best years; Hideki Matsui, 35, had one of his best despite a balky left knee; and Jorge Posada, 38, hit 22 home runs and slugged .522. Healthy and focused, the Yankees have All-Stars or near All-Stars at every position except centerfield (where Melky Cabrera dutifully fills the role of the scrappy Yankee), a Cy Young winner leading the staff and the best closer in the game's history. In baseball, "playing the game the right way" is code for teams that move runners over with productive outs, play sound defense and throw strikes. The Yankees do all those things, but with a $200 million payroll they've also assembled a lineup that led the league in on-base percentage and homers, and a pitching staff that led the league in strikeouts and saves. That's playing the game right.
And so the Yankees have, once again, become the most intimidating team in baseball. In golf, people talk about how Tiger Woods, more often than not, simply plays solid and consistent golf and waits for golfers to make critical mistakes. The same is true in NASCAR with three-time champion Jimmie Johnson. This Yankees team could always beat you. Now, though, they are content to let you beat yourself.
"We can't count on the Angels to keep giving us breaks," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after Game 2, but he might be wrong about that. Remember during the 2001 Yankees-Diamondbacks World Series, when Curt Schilling said of Mystique and Aura, "Those are dancers at a nightclub"? Well, don't look now, but Mystique and Aura are performing nightly in the Bronx again.
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