Monday, October 26, 2009

Yanks earn their way back to baseball's greatest stage

I liken my feeling prior to first pitch of Game Six last night to how Lindsay Lohan must feel on the eve of a mandatory probation hearing.

Unjustly annoyed. Kind of dazed. Quite nervous. Thinking about what can be ingested to take the edge off things.

I was annoyed because I knew the series should already be over. I was dazed because all those maddening off days had turned my apartment into the Overlook Hotel. (All off days and no play make Dan a dull boy.) I was nervous because of 2004. I was thinking about drinking gluttonous amounts of vodka.

The buffoons at the FOX pregame show didn't help matters any.

Eric Karros, perhaps best known as the worst player to ever hit 284 home runs, spoke of merely capable Angels starter Joe Saunders in hushed tones of reverence.

Mark Grace, a man so intelligent he once reasoned that having sex with unattractive women would make him hit a baseball further, basically wrote off the Yankees' chances with Andy Pettitte on the mound, getting in a dig on Pettitte's performance against Grace and the '01 D-backs while he was at it.

(Hey Gracey, you beat Pettitte in the World Series because he was unknowingly tipping his pitches. And by the way, seeking out fat chicks to bang doesn't lead to hits; it just shows you have low self-esteem.)

Once the game started and the hours days of pregame chatter dissipated, I immediately started to feel better. The crowd at the Stadium was great, and Pettitte was throwing strikes and generally looking like the veteran who would become baseball's winningest playoff pitcher ever in less than four hours.

The Yankees may have been tight, but they didn't look it. Instead, they gave off the vibe of a team that knew it was better than its opponent.

When the Angels drew first blood on Bobby Abreu's single in the third, you didn't feel the same sense of dread that blanketed the old Stadium when Curt Schilling, Party City blood on his sock and all, was staked to an early lead in Game Six of the ALCS five years ago.

That Yankees team in '04 redefined the idea of playing tight. The cast of the 1997 Showtime classic Joe Torre: Curveballs Along the Way could've beaten the '04 Yanks in Games Six and Seven, and they had Tori Spelling's husband playing David Cone.

This modern-day Yankees team is different.

They are a closer, deeper, and more cohesive unit than any of the post-dynasty teams.

While Joe Torre, and perhaps even Paul Sorvino, would have managed aspects of the ALCS better than Joe Girardi, the Yankees manager deserves credit for nailing two crucial decisions on Sunday.

One was sticking with Pettitte when starting a fully rested CC Sabathia was the play-it-safe move. Pettitte rewarded his manager's faith, and now the Yanks are set up this week with Sabathia potentially pitching three games against the Phillies.

The second move was to bring in Mariano Rivera for the final six outs. This was not the time to mess around, and Girardi managed decisively in a key juncture of the season. After a week of over-thinking every bullpen move with often dreadful results, Girardi simplified things and put the ball in the hands of the G.O.A.T.

The. Greatest. Of. All. Time.

I wrote before the playoffs started how this was likely the last chance for the Old Guard of Derek Jeter/Jorge Posada/Pettitte/Mo to contribute at a high level alongside the New Guard of Mark Teixeira/Alex Rodriguez/CC/Phil Hughes.

Watching Pettitte, Posada, and Mo combine on the win that sent the Yankees to the World Series was fitting in that sense. The old guys have fully embraced this unique moment in the franchise's history.

The clubhouse celebration was really cool for that reason. Jeter had a look of satisfaction on his face that you haven't seen in years. Seeing Posada and Rivera with their kids was a reminder how long we've been attached to these guys.

Work is still to be done, of course. The Twins and Angels are now history, but next up is the Phillies, probably the best National League team the Yankees have faced in the Fall Classic since the '96 Braves.

I'm sure there will be people who count the Yankees out, clowns like Eric Karros and Mark Grace who look for any reason to go against the big bad Bronx Bombers.

I wouldn't suggest it, though. The Yankees have played like champions for five months. I don't get the feeling it's going to stop now.

Dan Hanzus can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.

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