The New York Yankees are back to the playoffs and Joe Girardi has likely saved his job as manager of his club. By beating their true arch-nemesis (sorry Boston) the Anaheim Angels 6-5 on Tuesday New York secured at least the wild card in the American League. In doing so the team took an important step towards establishing the new Yankee dynasty whose construction and philosophical implementation began in earnest last season with the changing of the guard at the manager position and the re-focusing on the youth elements of the franchise as apposed to the spend-and-fill techniques used to patchwork the dysfunctional teams that floundered in the postseason after the collapse of the Torre-led dynasty from the 90s.
In fitting fashion, Yankee farm system product Brett Gardner scored the tie-breaking run Tuesday night on an Alex Rodriguez line drive. Jorge Posada also homered, and Mariano Rivera closed a game that featured a lineage of Yankee-bred talent connecting the Torre and Girardi era in much the same way the manager himself does, once as a championship player and now as the skipper with championship aspirations. The connection is clear in the dualistic identities and styles of the teams Girardi played for and the one he now manages.
The greatest embodiment of that connection, Yankees captain (and fellow farm system product) Derek Jeter collected his 200th hit of the season for the 7th time in his career, making him the oldest Yankee and the oldest regular shortstop ever to post that total in a season. In fact, Jeter's latest milestone gains him access to the ultra-exclusive group of Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Paul Warner, Pete Rose, and Tony Gwynn as the only players to post 200 hits in a season before the age of 25 and again after the age of 34.
In a season that has seen Derek Jeter achieve a plethora of milestones and accomplishments (including passing Lou Gehrig as the all-time Yankees hit leader) he now finds himself honing in on another, only one season behind Gehrig for the most 200 hit seasons as a Yankee. All of these marks tend to show the age of an accomplished player that is now the stalwart veteran, the future Hall of Famer, for sports' greatest franchise. But to remind people that he's far from feeling the effects of his "progressing age," Jeter promptly stole second base after slashing the single that was his 200th hit to right field, in classic Jeter-like fashion.
While ownership and most Yankee fans alike will not be satisfied with a mere playoff appearance after such a promising season (and a large investment on ownership's part), the fact that a team that faced so many questions at the beginning of the season has played at such an elite and cohesive level is an accomplishment in itself.
Obviously Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixiera were expected to produce; and they have. But a 35 year old Hideki Matsui with crumbling knees was not expected to hit 28 home runs (more than any other DH in Yankee history), 88 RBIs, and post a .901 OPS.
And while no one will mistake Nick Swisher for Paul O'Neill, his .251 average is a big improvement over the .219 he put up for the White Sox last year and his 27 home runs are the second highest total of his career. Throw in his .368 OBP, 89 walks (he literally burns pitchers out with his at bats) his versatility in the field (he's played every outfield position and first base), and the fact that his switch hitting causes matchup hell for opponent's bullpens (the Yankees regularly start four switch hitters) and Swisher was a brilliant low-profile signing for the Yankees.
Even Melky Cabrera — a player who out of spring training lost his starting job to the aforementioned Gardner — has contributed to the Yankees in a big way, coming through constantly in the clutch, providing outstanding defense, and posting solid all-around offensive statistics. Three players either viewed as weaknesses in the preseason or overlooked altogether by most experts, have been integral components in the Yankees success this season.
This has also been true on the pitching end. Once again it has been two home-grown Yankee products that have solidified a bullpen that was sited as a possibly fatal deficiency for the team before the season began. Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves have been dominant in relief, securing well-pitched games by the Yankees' rotation and salvaging many games to allow the now seemingly common Yankee late game or walk-off win.
Aceves (brought over from the Mexican leagues) struggled as a starter but has been very good pitching in both middle and long relief roles, picking up 10 wins (to only one loss) along the way. Likewise, Phil Hughes was ineffective in his own starting audition but has been an absolutely premium setup man in front of the game's greatest closer. Hughes has posted a 1.30 ERA in 48.1 innings of relief, allowing only 28 hits while striking out 59 batsmen to only 13 walks. He also collected 17 holds (the "save" for a setup man) locking down the 8th and many times a portion of the 7th innings for the Bombers on a regular basis, and even notched three saves, two of which came while filling in for a Rivera who was out with a groin injury in early September.
Although the team went into a slide in the past week (give or take a few games), the playoff clinching, signature 9th inning win for the Yankees on Tuesday (with another dark-horse acquisition Chad Gaudin turning in a solid start) and their subsequent series-winning victory on Wednesday will get the team back on track for the playoffs quickly.
Struggling AJ Burnett struck out 11 Angels in the series finale in which Cabrera (1 RBI) and Robinson Cano (2 RBIs) accounted for all three of New York's runs and even Ian Kennedy made an appearance, as the Yankees scored their first series win in Anaheim since May, 2004. Psychologically, the victory over Mike Scioscia's squad may have been the final step for this team to allow themselves to mentally ride the season's momentum into the playoffs, where they have failed constantly since 2002 (2001 can hardly be considered a failure). This may seem like placing a lot of emphasis on the importance of the psychological state of the team in relation to their success, but no one disputes the talent of the Yankees' roster. Stating that baseball is, in an important sense, a "mental game" is only cliché because it is true.
And while detractors will always point to the large contracts and home run totals of players like Mark Teixiera and A-Rod to justify the Yankees' success, the failure of the fragmented teams of the past decade juxtaposed to the success of the current seamless and highly functional collective of stars and vital components is evidence enough that money alone does not buy a championship. Investment in a product is never a negative as long as the investment improves the quality of the product's results, which has clearly not been the case in recent years but is evidently now in the Bronx.
The intelligence and effectiveness behind the Yankees' recent organizational philosophy can be seen in little things like the increased camaraderie, shown when the entire pitching staff stands together on the top step of the dugout even on off days (times Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson spent in the locker room apart from team) to vivid examples like the Yankees' two victories against the dangerous and problematic Anaheim Angels and – on a larger scale — by their probable first place finish in baseball's toughest most competitive division.