IT WAS 12:01 A.M. ON OCT. 26 WHEN THE CLOCK STRUCK midnight for the Los Angeles Angels. It is, of course, a bit ridiculous to cast a team with the game's seventh-highest payroll that had won the second-most games during the 2009 regular season and that is the only club in the American League since 2000 to have a winning record against the Yankees (56-44) in a Cinderella role in the American League Championship Series. But the Angels' payroll of $116.7 million was just 56% of the Yankees', and the 97 games that L.A. won were six fewer than New York won. And this iteration of the Yankees was different—more complete, with better pitching—than those on which the Angels beat up for most of the decade.
As expected, the Yankees won the first two games, playing at home. And even as New York lost two of the three games the teams played in Anaheim, there was a sense that if the Yankees were to somehow blow two in a row in New York and lose the series, it would represent a shocking collapse. Not the equivalent of the 2004 ALCS meltdown when they were up 3-0 to the Red Sox, perhaps, but close to it. And then Mariano Rivera ended Game 6 by striking out Gary Matthews Jr. one minute after Sunday had become Monday, and the Angels, slipperless, flew home to California for the winter.
Nearly all of the series' games were close. Two (Games 2 and 3, which the teams split) went to extra innings, and only one was decided by more than three runs (New York's 10-1 romp in Game 4). As it did in the ALDS sweep of the Twins, pitching, particularly starting pitching, gave the Yankees the edge. In their four victories the starters—A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia, who won Games 1 and 4 and was named the series' Most Valuable Player—combined to pitch 28 2/3 innings and allowed just five earned runs, for an ERA of 1.57.
They also neutralized L.A.'s running game, thought to be the one edge that the Angels might have. Pettitte made 19 pickoff attempts in Game 3, and a staff-wide attentiveness limited the Angels, whose 148 regular-season stolen bases ranked third in the majors, to just four steals in the ALCS.
As a result the Yankees forced L.A. to try to beat them by out-slugging them. And that was a game at which the Yankees, who set a club record with 244 home runs in the regular season and hit eight more during the ALCS, could not lose, especially with Alex Rodriguez turning in a second consecutive otherworldly series, hitting .429 with three homers. "We've had big players do big things," manager Joe Girardi said as his players conducted the franchise's first pennant-winning champagne celebration in six years.
"I said it was going to be a dogfight, and it was," said Angels third baseman Chone Figgins. "They came out on top, but they know it wasn't easy." Though it might not have been easy for the Yankees, it wasn't all that hard. Their ultimate challenge was to begin three evenings later, when the defending champion Phillies came to the Bronx for Game 1 of the World Series.