In short, the New York Yankees acted Sunday night like they had accomplished something special by winning what they have taken for granted the last two seasons: the American League Division Series.
And maybe they had. With a blistering first inning and a bullish effort from the bullpen, the Yankees held off the younger Oakland Athletics, 7-5, to capture the fifth and final game of the Division Series. The A's may be on the verge of becoming the team to beat in the AL, but for now the Yankees still have a shot at becoming the first team in nearly 30 years to win three consecutive world championships.
The next step, the AL Championship Series, begins Tuesday in New York against wild card Seattle. The Yankees have home-field advantage for that series since the top two seeds, Chicago and Oakland, have been eliminated. They would also have the home-field advantage for the World Series.
"I can't even talk right now because I'm a little choked up," Yankees manager Joe Torre said minutes after robo-closer Mariano Rivera got Eric Chavez to pop out for the final out of the series. "I got so tired of hearing that this team turned 'it' on and turned 'it' off. We come to play every night. I don't think there is any club that I've ever been as proud of as this one."
The last two years, the Division Series has just been an extension of the regular season for the Yankees. They overwhelmed the Rangers and didn't spend much time or effort celebrating the wins. There was more important business to attend to.
This year, the Yankees limped down the stretch. They lost their final seven regular season games â€“ and home-field advantage.
On Sunday, though, the bullpen, which had been the source for much of the late-season frustration, proved to be the Yankees' salvation. The Yankees scored six runs in the first, chasing A's starter Gil Heredia, then had to rely on the bullpen when their own starter, Andy Pettitte couldn't make it through the fourth.
The bullpen has been the Yankees backbone in their back-to-back world championships and looked no less imposing on Sunday. On Sunday, the quartet of Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, starter-turned-reliever Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, and Rivera combined to allow three hits and no runs over the 51/3 innings. The bullpen had allowed at least one run in each of the last seven games of the regular season, a total of 34 in 38 innings.
"Our bullpen has been maligned at times this season," Torre said. "But to have those guys do what they did tonight, well, like I said, I'm very choked up about it."
Said Nelson: "They kept battling back, getting guys on base and they just wouldn't die. We knew we might have to come in early and throw strikes. This was a situation where if we lost, we would have gone home. In that situation, you go to [relievers] earlier. You don't want to go home and wonder what would have happened if you had gone [to the bullpen] earlier."
Nelson came into the game to face the tying run in the sixth, but struck out No. 4 hitter Olmedo Saenz to end the inning. In the eighth, after Hernandez gave up a one-out single, Rivera struck out Terrence Long and got Randy Velarde to fly to left field. In the ninth, Rivera, who has a 0.34 career post-season ERA, allowed a two-out single to Miguel Tejada. Chavez popped out on the first pitch.
This may be the Yankee Dynasty's swan song, but they aren't going without a fight. Having to play Game 5 meant having to make their third coast-to-coast flight in a week, which takes a toll on a team.
The Yankees, however, quickly showed they might be tired, but they were able to perform. Chuck Knoblauch singled on the first pitch of the game and the Yankees were off and running to a six-run inning, chasing Heredia along the way.
Though the A's battled back, the Yankees withstood the challenge.
That's what champions do.