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Postseason On the Brink
November 09, 2009
It was not just the Yankees' money (the most in the majors), mojo (plenty) and talent (the game's best) that pushed the defending champion Phillies to the edge, it was a relentlessness not seen since the days of the last pinstriped dynasty
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November 09, 2009

Postseason On The Brink

It was not just the Yankees' money (the most in the majors), mojo (plenty) and talent (the game's best) that pushed the defending champion Phillies to the edge, it was a relentlessness not seen since the days of the last pinstriped dynasty

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Sunday night, midnight approaching, and Mariano Rivera, glove in pitching hand, head bowed ever modestly, jogged across the outfield grass in that familiar, slightly pigeon-toed canter, the universal baseball symbol of closing time. It could have been just about any autumn in the last 14 autumns, the tableau and the pitcher's greatness equally unchanged, as if preserved in amber. Upon his entry in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series, Rivera had appeared in more World Series games, 23, than any other pitcher in baseball history. ¶ Off to the New York closer's right, a less familiar scene unfolded, one that made this Yankees postseason look strikingly different from all Yankees postseasons before it. Shortstop Derek Jeter paused on his way to his position to talk with third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who in the top of the ninth inning had broken a 4--4 tie with what he would call the biggest hit of his life, a confidently struck two-out double off Phillies closer Brad Lidge. That hit would give the Yankees a 3--1 lead in the Series. The Phillies would force the Series back to the Bronx with an 8--6 win behind the continued excellence of Cliff Lee (1.56 postseason ERA) and the Reggie-like display of Chase Utley (a record-tying five home runs against the Bombers), but the Yankees left town having won two of three games against a club that had won 11 of its previous 12 postseason games at home.

Jeter and Rodriguez chatted easily about the pitch A-Rod hit, a fastball Lidge had thrown after offering a fastball on the first pitch, and about how Rodriguez knew it was coming. They both knew it, they confirmed to one another, because teammate Johnny Damon had been standing on third base, and Lidge would not dare throw his slider and risk sending home the tie-breaking run with a wild pitch. Two pinstriped postseason colossi—one long established, the other freshly minted—shared a joyful, relaxed moment, standing there knowing three outs from Rivera would put them one win away from the world championship. Jeter and Rodriguez were, at long last, Lennon and McCartney, collaborators of different kinds of genius.

Five years after the Yankees traded for Rodriguez, six years after they last played in a Series, nine years since they last won the Fall Classic (and one year after they failed to make the playoffs at all), the Yankees rediscovered their groove. What was it about this Yankees team that enabled it to succeed when the previous five had failed, scarred by a 4--13 postseason record since the great 2004 ALCS collapse to Boston?

In a hallway off the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, the question was put separately to the chief lieutenants of the Yankees' Old Guard, Jeter and his alter ego, catcher Jorge Posada, who, with Rivera, have been there throughout the dynasty, its fall and its great awakening. Jeter and Posada have played more postseason games since 1996 than any other active players, the shortstop with his coolheaded acuity and the catcher a furnace blast of emotion. True to their yin and yang, Posada and Jeter explained these new, remade Yankees very differently.

"Heart," Posada said. "We have a lot of heart. We don't die. We keep coming. We just keep coming at teams."

"Pitching," Jeter said. "Pitching, pitching, pitching. Pitching is the key any way you look at it. I've been saying the same thing for years, and people probably all thought I sounded like a broken record. But the one thing we always had when we won championships was pitching. And having the pitching this year is the difference. It's that simple."

The 2009 World Series has brought back a measure of grandeur to the Fall Classic. The previous five World Series were completed in a combined 22 games, just two more than the minimum. Not a single Series extended beyond five games. Too many flukes, wild cards and hot-at-the-right-time teams were crashing baseball's gala, like Valparaisos of the diamond. Television ratings dropped almost in half from 2004 to 2008. The weather was often abysmal.

The Phillies-Yankees matchup was the first since 1926 to pair the top home-run-hitting teams from each league (with 13 home runs between the two clubs through Game 5, the Series had lived up to its slugfest billing). It was the first matchup of division winners with at least 93 wins each since 1999, when the Braves and the Yankees met. It featured 10 players who had won either the Cy Young Award or a regular-season or postseason Most Valuable Player Award.

Also restored was the Yankees' brand. For the last nine years, only their payroll had set a high bar. Even this season, while opening a $1.5 billion palace in which the ticket prices drew more attention than the architecture, New York's consumption—coming in the teeth of a crippling economic downturn—was conspicuous. In Game 4, for instance, the Yankees started the highest-paid pitcher in baseball (CC Sabathia), ended it with the highest-paid closer (Rivera), jumped in front with a run by the highest-paid shortstop (Jeter) and salted the game away in the ninth when the highest-paid catcher (Posada) drove in the highest-paid first baseman (Mark Teixeira) and baseball's highest-paid player (Rodriguez).

But these Yankees set themselves apart in the cool, relentless manner in which they played the game. In between losses to Lee the Yankees fell behind in Games 2 and 3 and blew a 4--3 lead with four outs to go in Game 4, but won each time. Even down 8--2 in Game 5, they made a furious push.Their feral intensity was neatly reflected by Damon's at bat in the ninth inning of Game 4.

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