That Old Guard remained the core of the team, but the off-season reinforcements brought in around them, particularly in the rotation, revitalized the franchise. From 2001 through '07 New York's starters struck out batters at a declining rate in every season but one. In the 4--13 postseason slide entering this year's playoffs, Yankees starting pitchers were 2--9 with a 6.39 ERA while averaging three strikeouts and 4 2/3 innings per start. In the six games in which they faced elimination in that stretch, they gave the ball to pitchers who were old, hurt or lacked strikeout stuff: Kevin Brown, Shawn Chacon, Mike Mussina, Jaret Wright, Roger Clemens and Chien-Ming Wang. All of them were out of baseball this year except Wang, who won one game.
After missing the playoffs last year, the Yankees spent $423.5 million in 12 days on Teixeira, Sabathia and righthander A.J. Burnett. In 2008 Sabathia, at 27, and Burnett, at 31, had ranked second and third, respectively, in strikeouts in the majors. Now New York suddenly had two power pitchers in their prime to carry the team not only through the season but also through October. The impact was enormous. Until Burnett's implosion in Game 5 (two innings, six runs, four walks), the rotation had gone 7--1 with a 2.80 ERA while averaging 6 2/3 innings and six strikeouts per start in the postseason. Sabathia set a franchise record by throwing 36 1/3 innings. Burnett, in outdueling Pedro Martinez 3--1 in a Game 2 gem, became the first Yankee to strike out nine batters in a postseason game since Mussina in 2003.
Sabathia and Burnett pitched back-to-back games 23 times this year, and the Yankees lost two in a row only once in those games. The two regularly missed bats with their sharp breaking balls and mid-90s fastballs, and left the bullpen with few outs of heavy lifting. So strong were Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte that manager Joe Girardi took the risky step of forgoing a fourth starter in the World Series, even though no team had used a three-man rotation to win one since the 1991 Twins.
By the time Utley hit his fifth home run in the bottom of the seventh of Game 5, there was more than a whisper that Girardi's plan was flawed, but the Yankees were still up 3--2 and headed back to New York—and, for all the sudden questions about the rotation, they still owned the endgame. The advantage of having Rivera, who will turn 40 later this month, was never more pronounced than in this postseason. When it came to closers, the playoffs played out this year like a baseball version of Survivor. When the Yankees hung three runs on Lidge in Game 4, only one closer remained unbloodied from among the eight who started out this postseason: Rivera. The other seven all lost games or blew saves in the ninth inning or later.
With Rivera every lead was safe. Up 3--1 in Game 2 he got the last six outs, which required him to throw 39 pitches, the most he ever threw in his record catalog of World Series games. For Game 3 he needed only five pitches for the final two outs of the 8--5 win. And for Game 4 it took him just eight pitches to get the last three outs of the 7--4 win, a victory so meaningful that the normally stoic Rivera celebrated with a quick shout of exuberance and a clenched fist. It was the first time the Yankees had been one win away from the world championship since 2001, when an Arizona rally against Rivera in Game 7 did them in.
Baseball, as Hamels learned in Game 3, and as the Yankees learned while spending $1.4 billion in eight previous seasons without a title, can be very, very difficult to understand sometimes. But never does it look so familiar and so routine as when the Yankees are closing in on a ring.
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