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Original Issue

Postseason On the Brink

It was not just the Yankees' money (the most in the majors), mojo (plenty) and talent (the game's best) that pushed the defending champion Phillies to the edge, it was a relentlessness not seen since the days of the last pinstriped dynasty

Sunday night, midnight approaching, and Mariano Rivera, glove in pitching hand, head bowed ever modestly, jogged across the outfield grass in that familiar, slightly pigeon-toed canter, the universal baseball symbol of closing time. It could have been just about any autumn in the last 14 autumns, the tableau and the pitcher's greatness equally unchanged, as if preserved in amber. Upon his entry in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series, Rivera had appeared in more World Series games, 23, than any other pitcher in baseball history. ¶ Off to the New York closer's right, a less familiar scene unfolded, one that made this Yankees postseason look strikingly different from all Yankees postseasons before it. Shortstop Derek Jeter paused on his way to his position to talk with third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who in the top of the ninth inning had broken a 4--4 tie with what he would call the biggest hit of his life, a confidently struck two-out double off Phillies closer Brad Lidge. That hit would give the Yankees a 3--1 lead in the Series. The Phillies would force the Series back to the Bronx with an 8--6 win behind the continued excellence of Cliff Lee (1.56 postseason ERA) and the Reggie-like display of Chase Utley (a record-tying five home runs against the Bombers), but the Yankees left town having won two of three games against a club that had won 11 of its previous 12 postseason games at home.

Jeter and Rodriguez chatted easily about the pitch A-Rod hit, a fastball Lidge had thrown after offering a fastball on the first pitch, and about how Rodriguez knew it was coming. They both knew it, they confirmed to one another, because teammate Johnny Damon had been standing on third base, and Lidge would not dare throw his slider and risk sending home the tie-breaking run with a wild pitch. Two pinstriped postseason colossi—one long established, the other freshly minted—shared a joyful, relaxed moment, standing there knowing three outs from Rivera would put them one win away from the world championship. Jeter and Rodriguez were, at long last, Lennon and McCartney, collaborators of different kinds of genius.

Five years after the Yankees traded for Rodriguez, six years after they last played in a Series, nine years since they last won the Fall Classic (and one year after they failed to make the playoffs at all), the Yankees rediscovered their groove. What was it about this Yankees team that enabled it to succeed when the previous five had failed, scarred by a 4--13 postseason record since the great 2004 ALCS collapse to Boston?

In a hallway off the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, the question was put separately to the chief lieutenants of the Yankees' Old Guard, Jeter and his alter ego, catcher Jorge Posada, who, with Rivera, have been there throughout the dynasty, its fall and its great awakening. Jeter and Posada have played more postseason games since 1996 than any other active players, the shortstop with his coolheaded acuity and the catcher a furnace blast of emotion. True to their yin and yang, Posada and Jeter explained these new, remade Yankees very differently.

"Heart," Posada said. "We have a lot of heart. We don't die. We keep coming. We just keep coming at teams."

"Pitching," Jeter said. "Pitching, pitching, pitching. Pitching is the key any way you look at it. I've been saying the same thing for years, and people probably all thought I sounded like a broken record. But the one thing we always had when we won championships was pitching. And having the pitching this year is the difference. It's that simple."

The 2009 World Series has brought back a measure of grandeur to the Fall Classic. The previous five World Series were completed in a combined 22 games, just two more than the minimum. Not a single Series extended beyond five games. Too many flukes, wild cards and hot-at-the-right-time teams were crashing baseball's gala, like Valparaisos of the diamond. Television ratings dropped almost in half from 2004 to 2008. The weather was often abysmal.

The Phillies-Yankees matchup was the first since 1926 to pair the top home-run-hitting teams from each league (with 13 home runs between the two clubs through Game 5, the Series had lived up to its slugfest billing). It was the first matchup of division winners with at least 93 wins each since 1999, when the Braves and the Yankees met. It featured 10 players who had won either the Cy Young Award or a regular-season or postseason Most Valuable Player Award.

Also restored was the Yankees' brand. For the last nine years, only their payroll had set a high bar. Even this season, while opening a $1.5 billion palace in which the ticket prices drew more attention than the architecture, New York's consumption—coming in the teeth of a crippling economic downturn—was conspicuous. In Game 4, for instance, the Yankees started the highest-paid pitcher in baseball (CC Sabathia), ended it with the highest-paid closer (Rivera), jumped in front with a run by the highest-paid shortstop (Jeter) and salted the game away in the ninth when the highest-paid catcher (Posada) drove in the highest-paid first baseman (Mark Teixeira) and baseball's highest-paid player (Rodriguez).

But these Yankees set themselves apart in the cool, relentless manner in which they played the game. In between losses to Lee the Yankees fell behind in Games 2 and 3 and blew a 4--3 lead with four outs to go in Game 4, but won each time. Even down 8--2 in Game 5, they made a furious push.Their feral intensity was neatly reflected by Damon's at bat in the ninth inning of Game 4.

With the bases clear and two outs, Lidge was one strike from putting away Damon and giving his team a chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. With the count 1 and 2, Damon fouled off a slider, took two fastballs, fouled off two more fastballs and, on the ninth pitch of the at bat, a fifth straight fastball, dumped an opposite-field single to left.

"Wow, Johnny," Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard said to Damon. "That was some professional at bat."

"I went back and looked at the tape." Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said afterward. "That was an at bat for the ages. It's the at bat that will define this team."

Damon didn't stick around for long at first base. He took off for second on the next pitch, knowing Lidge is notoriously poor at holding runners. Damon stole the base easily, but catcher Carlos Ruiz stubbornly threw the ball anyway to third baseman Pedro Feliz, who took the throw at second because Philadelphia was in a defensive overshift against Teixeira. As Damon popped up from his slide, he noticed that third base wasn't being covered. He dashed away from an unprepared Feliz as Lidge and Ruiz played bystanding rubes. Damon was credited with two stolen bases. After Lidge hit Teixeira, Rodriguez broke the tie with a double on the pitch he and Jeter knew was coming.

That Ruiz threw the ball at all, that no one covered third base, and that no conference took place when Damon reached first base to review a defense for such a possibility were outrageous mistakes. Then again, it was just the latest blunder by a Yankees opponent in a postseason full of them. The breakdowns included major baserunning mistakes by Carlos Gomez and Nick Punto of the Twins in the ALDS, eight errors and 38 walks by the Angels in the ALCS, and a mental meltdown by Phillies starter Cole Hamels in Game 3 of the Series.

Hamels turned a 3--0 lead into a 5--3 deficit in the eyeblink of eight batters. Rodriguez accounted for two runs with a fourth-inning home run that bonked off the lens of a television camera that hung slightly over the rightfield wall. Umpire Jeff Nelson, thinking the ball hit the wall, originally ruled it in play, and Rodriguez stopped at second base with a double. After the first World Series use of instant replay, the umpires overturned the call and awarded Rodriguez a home run. It was an M.C. Escher moment: using a camera to view a baseball hitting another camera.

More difficult to figure was Hamels's brain lock in the next inning. Hamels thought Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte would bunt with the tying run at second and one out, so he threw him a high curveball to try to induce a pop-up. "It's a bunting situation," Hamels insisted after the game.

"No, that's not a bunting situation," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said later. "No way. Not with one out. Runner on first? We bunt there. Runner at second? No, we don't bunt. Cole said that?"

Given a soft, high pitch, Pettitte knocked a single into centerfield to tie the game, the first postseason RBI by a Yankees pitcher in 45 years. ("Baseball is very, very difficult to understand sometimes," Hamels would say, still baffled about why Pettitte was not bunting.) Hamels's mental gaffe was a turning point in the Series. Within four pitches New York had scored three times; Jeter followed Pettitte's single with one of his own, then came a two-run double by Damon, a regular Johnny-on-the-spot in the Series.

Just like old times, going back to championships in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000, Jeter and Posada each hit safely in the Yankees' wins in Games 2, 3 and 4 while scoring or driving in eight runs; Rivera obtained the last outs of all three wins (and 11 outs in all without a run scoring); and Pettitte, with six yeoman innings, got his record 17th postseason win in Game 3.

That Old Guard remained the core of the team, but the off-season reinforcements brought in around them, particularly in the rotation, revitalized the franchise. From 2001 through '07 New York's starters struck out batters at a declining rate in every season but one. In the 4--13 postseason slide entering this year's playoffs, Yankees starting pitchers were 2--9 with a 6.39 ERA while averaging three strikeouts and 4 2/3 innings per start. In the six games in which they faced elimination in that stretch, they gave the ball to pitchers who were old, hurt or lacked strikeout stuff: Kevin Brown, Shawn Chacon, Mike Mussina, Jaret Wright, Roger Clemens and Chien-Ming Wang. All of them were out of baseball this year except Wang, who won one game.

After missing the playoffs last year, the Yankees spent $423.5 million in 12 days on Teixeira, Sabathia and righthander A.J. Burnett. In 2008 Sabathia, at 27, and Burnett, at 31, had ranked second and third, respectively, in strikeouts in the majors. Now New York suddenly had two power pitchers in their prime to carry the team not only through the season but also through October. The impact was enormous. Until Burnett's implosion in Game 5 (two innings, six runs, four walks), the rotation had gone 7--1 with a 2.80 ERA while averaging 6 2/3 innings and six strikeouts per start in the postseason. Sabathia set a franchise record by throwing 36 1/3 innings. Burnett, in outdueling Pedro Martinez 3--1 in a Game 2 gem, became the first Yankee to strike out nine batters in a postseason game since Mussina in 2003.

Sabathia and Burnett pitched back-to-back games 23 times this year, and the Yankees lost two in a row only once in those games. The two regularly missed bats with their sharp breaking balls and mid-90s fastballs, and left the bullpen with few outs of heavy lifting. So strong were Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte that manager Joe Girardi took the risky step of forgoing a fourth starter in the World Series, even though no team had used a three-man rotation to win one since the 1991 Twins.

By the time Utley hit his fifth home run in the bottom of the seventh of Game 5, there was more than a whisper that Girardi's plan was flawed, but the Yankees were still up 3--2 and headed back to New York—and, for all the sudden questions about the rotation, they still owned the endgame. The advantage of having Rivera, who will turn 40 later this month, was never more pronounced than in this postseason. When it came to closers, the playoffs played out this year like a baseball version of Survivor. When the Yankees hung three runs on Lidge in Game 4, only one closer remained unbloodied from among the eight who started out this postseason: Rivera. The other seven all lost games or blew saves in the ninth inning or later.

With Rivera every lead was safe. Up 3--1 in Game 2 he got the last six outs, which required him to throw 39 pitches, the most he ever threw in his record catalog of World Series games. For Game 3 he needed only five pitches for the final two outs of the 8--5 win. And for Game 4 it took him just eight pitches to get the last three outs of the 7--4 win, a victory so meaningful that the normally stoic Rivera celebrated with a quick shout of exuberance and a clenched fist. It was the first time the Yankees had been one win away from the world championship since 2001, when an Arizona rally against Rivera in Game 7 did them in.

Baseball, as Hamels learned in Game 3, and as the Yankees learned while spending $1.4 billion in eight previous seasons without a title, can be very, very difficult to understand sometimes. But never does it look so familiar and so routine as when the Yankees are closing in on a ring.