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NEW YORK -- It's truly amazing what a three-game winning streak will do for the perception of a team.
It was only a week ago today that it seemed just as likely the New York Yankees would bow out of October before Columbus Day as it was they would take us all the way to Halloween, and beyond.
Needing and wanting to win three games in Boston last weekend to wrap up the AL East, the Yankees responded with some of their worst baseball of the season and wound up with the consolation prize of the wild card.
The team that looked like a sure 100-game-plus winner in July had staggered to a 95-67 final record. The Yankees played barely above .500 ball after the All-Star break (39-35) and had lost 17 of their last 30 games.
CC Sabathia, of course, was solid but no one was hitting very much, Andy Pettitte's form had been subpar following two months on the disabled list, A.J. Burnett had been finally, and unavoidably, yanked from the rotation and by the time Phil Hughes got into a playoff game, he would have gone 12 days between starts. Even the incomparable one, Mariano Rivera, had blown two saves in a week down the stretch.
No, things did not look good on Oct. 3, the final day of the regular season.
|The Yankees might need A.J. Burnett to start an ALCS game. You still feeling confident?|
Now, one week and three wins over the Minnesota Twins later, all is well in Yankeeland.
The Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays are beating one another's brains out in the other ALDS. The Rays, like the Yankees, staggered to the finish line, both teams perhaps exhausted by their season-long tussle over control of the division.
And the Yankees now have five full days of rest, recovery and research to prepare for the next phase of their journey.
But is all as good as it seems? And is it really that easy, or wise, to act as if three games in October should pull down all the warning flags that were justifiably raised in September?
"That's the great thing about it: This is October, man," said Nick Swisher, as if the name of the month itself contained some magic that transfers itself to the Yankees as if by birthright. "Once the lights turn on, the guys around here pick it up, no doubt."
That belief is even shared to an extent by Rivera, who said in the Yankees' clubhouse following the 6-1 victory that completed the sweep over the Twins, "It's the playoffs, so therefore it's a different game."
Asked if it was really that easy to just shrug off the storm clouds of September, Rivera said, "That does matter. But I can care less about it now. It's in the past."
But not the all-that-distant past, and really, in the seven days since the regular season came to its stumbling finish, what have the Yankees really done?
Beaten a Twins team that, while scrappy and talented during the regular season, has never shown the ability to come up big in October, especially against the Yankees.
Beaten a Twins team minus its second-best hitter, Justin Morneau, and without much of a starting staff beyond Francisco Liriano, who is certainly no CC Sabathia.
Beaten a Twins team that was unable to capitalize on a tremendous advantage, a 3-0 fifth-inning lead in Game 1, at home, on a night when Sabathia had nothing.
This is not quite the great accomplishment it may seem to be in the box score. And now, all the flaws that were apparent over the 30 days of September but were masked by the three-game sweep might well be exposed again in what are likely to be back-to-back deep series.
As Jorge Posada said, quite wisely I thought, last week in Boston, "You can't just turn it on and off for the playoffs. Not even us."
And as Alex Rodriguez pointed out, again and again, while many of his teammates were projecting false bravado and baseless optimism, "We have to play better baseball, it's as simple as that. We're not very good right now."
Well, how much has really changed since that lifeless, ragged performance in the last game of the year at Fenway?
For one thing, both Pettitte and Hughes pitched outstanding games against Minnesota. For another, guys who were achy, like Mark Teixeira, Swisher and Brett Gardner, have begun to regain their health. Derek Jeter is hitting line drives again rather than ground balls. And Rivera has returned to being Rivera.
But on the flip side, what if Sabathia's workload this season is beginning to catch up with him at the point of the season the Yankees need to ride him the hardest? Sabathia threw 237 2/3 innings this season, the third-highest total of his career and 51 more than the next Yankees starter, Burnett. In 19 of his 34 starts, Sabathia threw more than 110 pitches and twice went over 120.
The Yankees caught a break not having to use him in Game 4 on short rest, but might have to force him into extra action in the ALCS if they fall behind 2-1, because who would you rather trust that game to? Burnett?
And the odds are Burnett will have to pitch at least once in the ALCS, since there are no extra off days built into the schedule. The likely rotation is Sabathia in 1 and 5, Pettitte in 2 and 6, Hughes in 3 and 7. Who pitches Game 4?
And then there is the possibility of problems in the bullpen leading up to Mariano. Kerry Wood, who was so terrific in August and September, was less than that against the Twins, and in fact had his worst outing as a Yankee in Game 3.
A one-game glitch? Or the beginning of a trend?
The Yankees, of course, have a quality that was missing in the Twins and also seems to be lacking in the Texas Rangers, namely killer instinct. You knew there was no way they would fail to close out the Twins with a 2-0 lead at home.
Meanwhile, the Rangers, having swept their two away games with Tampa, promptly gave them both back at home. Now, both teams must use their aces, Cliff Lee and David Price, in what promises to be a tense and emotional Game 5 on Tuesday night.
This is another huge break for the Yankees, who can relax knowing that no matter who wins, neither of those pitchers will appear in the ALCS until Game 3, by which point the Yankees could already have a commanding lead.
"A lot of things have to go right," Rodriguez said. "Sometimes winning 11 games can sound very simple, but we know it is a very tall mountain to climb."
That mountain hasn't gotten any smaller or easier to scale just because the Yankees have swept the Twins.
All the Yankees have accomplished so far is a three-game winning streak over a team that may be in their league, but hardly in their class.
Now, they must win eight of 14 against increasingly tougher competition. That is a task that hardly seemed possible for this team just a week ago.
The perception of the Yankees now is quite different. The reality? Still to be determined.
Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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