Commentary

Old hands guide Yankees to ALCS

Pettitte, Posada and Rivera push New York to series sweep of Twins

Originally Published: October 11, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada have more in common than an impressive collection of World Series rings and firsthand recall of the Derek Jeter postseason Greatest Hits catalogue.

They were around in 1996, when Wade Boggs celebrated a championship from the top of a police horse. They saw Paul O'Neill's epic at-bat against Armando Benitez in the Subway Series, Aaron Boone's home run off Tim Wakefield and Chuck Knoblauch's unfortunate beaning of Keith Olbermann's mother in the Yankee Stadium box seats.

[+] EnlargeJorge Posada
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJorge Posada's solo homer in the seventh inning pushed the Yankees into the lead for good in Game 3 against Minnesota.

In recent years, the Yankees mainstays learned how it feels to get bounced early in the playoffs -- or not make the playoffs at all. Midges descended upon Joba Chamberlain one fateful night in Cleveland. The Joe Torre era ended unceremoniously. And who can forget the psychic damage the Yankees incurred from that tabloid photograph of Alex Rodriguez sunning himself while shirtless in Central Park?

But with the arrival of a new ballpark and some skillful reshaping of the roster, the good old days are being resurrected in New York. No one is enjoying the ride more than the franchise's throwbacks, who are showing there's plenty of life still left in their games.

On the same night the Twins departed the Metrodome home clubhouse for the final time and left the keys to the building to Brett Favre and the Vikings, the Yankees reveled in wall-to-wall nostalgia. Dissect New York's 4-1 victory Sunday -- a win that completed an ALDS sweep of Minnesota -- and the veterans' fingerprints were everywhere.

Pettitte threw 6 1/3 innings of precision, one-run ball before giving way to the bullpen. Posada drove in two runs with a homer and a single, and combined with Jeter for the defensive play of the evening when he nailed an overzealous Nick Punto rounding third base in the eighth inning.

And after a brief delay in the bottom of the ninth, when a hefty, presumably inebriated fan cavorted for one final time in the Metrodome outfield, Rivera set down the Twins for his 35th postseason save.

After Jeter fielded a routine Brendan Harris grounder and threw to first to complete the sweep, the Yankees jumped around the infield and retired to the clubhouse to spray champagne. Then they began looking forward to a second-round date with the Angels that should be a stark contrast to some of the walkovers we've seen this postseason.

"We're going to have a nasty series,'' Pettitte said. "It's going to be a war.''

The luxury of having some experienced foot soldiers isn't lost on Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who played with Jeter, Pettitte, Rivera and Posada in New York before putting away his chest protector and shin guards and gravitating to a managerial career.

"These guys are used to playing at this time of the year and they seem to relish the moments together,'' Girardi said. "And they know how to play this time of year. The situation is not going to faze them.''

In truth, the old-guard guys will be perceived as supporting players in the first round. This American League Division Series was noteworthy for A-Rod amending his sorry postseason reputation with a .455 average, two homers and six RBIs, and the Yankees outscoring the Twins 15-6. Starters CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Pettitte combined for a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings.

"Our pitching was phenomenal, from the starters to the bullpen,'' New York general manager Brian Cashman said. "Pitching and defense really got us past this first round. Outside of Alex, we did not hit collectively.''

Still, if you hang around as long as these guys have, there's a chance you'll become a walking museum piece. When Pettitte induced his first out Sunday on a Denard Span ground ball, it gave him 218 2/3 career postseason innings -- moving him past Tom Glavine into first place on the all-time list. More than three hours later, Pettitte's 15th career postseason win tied him with John Smoltz for first all time.

The performance prompted Cashman to reflect upon events of last winter, when he flew to Oakland to try to persuade Sabathia to sign with the Yankees, then made a side trip to Houston to lobby Pettitte to join the team on its sojourn across the street to the new Yankee Stadium.

"They were both secret missions, and they were both important for the same reasons,'' Cashman said. "They were key additions we were trying to make for this staff in 2009. Thankfully, both meetings went well enough that we found a way to secure both players for this rotation. They certainly made a difference -- no doubt about it.''

[+] EnlargeAndy Pettitte
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesAndy Pettitte picked up his 15th career postseason win on Sunday, tying him for most in history with John Smoltz.

Posada, in his 13th season as a Yankee, took some knocks last week when he reacted testily to the news that Jose Molina would catch Burnett in Game 2. But Girardi wasn't nearly as offended as the talk-show callers who teed off on Posada for his alleged selfishness.

"As I've told people before, I don't want Jorge to be happy that he's not playing,'' Girardi said. "I don't ever want a player to be happy he is not playing. I want guys that want to play every day, every inning, 162 games a year, every play. I want players who are hungry, and Jorge is extremely hungry.''

As for Rivera, he just keeps humming along with that cutter. His stoicism and reliability on the mound were particularly impressive when viewed against the carnage that other closers suffered in Division Series. The Twins' Joe Nathan, the Red Sox's Jonathan Papelbon and the Cardinals' Ryan Franklin certainly weren't immune.

Girardi, taking a page from the Torre handbook, didn't hesitate to pull Phil Hughes with two outs in the eighth and summon Rivera. After retiring Joe Mauer on a weak grounder to end the inning, Rivera breezed through the ninth for his eighth career postseason series clincher. That's four more clinchers than Randy Myers and Dennis Eckersley, who are tied for second.

Rivera never celebrates or "emotes'' on the mound, and that demeanor always wins points in opposing dugouts. He symbolizes the Yankees' ideal of players who do it the right way -- players who pride themselves on consistency over time and take the same businesslike approach to the game no matter how high the stakes.

"I know a lot of things get said about their payroll and all that, but the bottom line is, they are just great baseball players,'' said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "That's why they make a lot of money -- because they deserve it. They've played the game for a long time, and they get it done.''

The Yankees entered the postseason as a popular choice to win their first title since 2000. With their three victories over the Twins, they're exactly 27.3 percent of the way toward their goal.

"Those guys were bred to win, and it's great to be a part of it,'' said left fielder Johnny Damon. "Hopefully we're all bred to win eight more games.''

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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