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Yankees in driver's seat

MINNEAPOLIS -- Hold off on the pink slips. The big, bad $180 million Yankees not only are still around, they're going to play for another American League pennant. And there's nothing the Twins nor anyone else can do about it.

New York lost the first game of its division series with Minnesota, providing joy to Yankees haters around the world, inspiring panic and tabloid headlines in New York ("BOMBERS STINK UP THE HOUSE!'') and further fueling speculation that owner George Steinbrenner will soon dump everything from manager Joe Torre to Don Zimmer's steel plate.

He still might, of course, but the purge will have to wait at least a week -- and probably longer. New York recovered from its Game 1 loss and never trailed again, taking the division series and regaining that old Bronx swagger with a convincing 8-1 rout at the Metrodome in Game 4.

In other words, it's business as usual this October after last year's delicious reprieve when the Angels knocked the Yankees out in the first round.

When Bernie Williams squeezed Cristian Guzman's fly ball for the final out, the Yankees greeted each other on the field as if they had done nothing more than beat the Devil Rays in a mid-August game. They sprayed champagne in the clubhouse but it was only Cook's, nothing expensive. In New York, you don't pop the Dom Perignon just for beating the Twins.

"This is the first part of the journey,'' Jason Giambi said. "I'm excited -- I've never gotten out of this round -- but this isn't the reason I came here.''

It's not the reason Steinbrenner has a $180 million payroll either. Winning the first round of the playoffs was not the club's ultimate goal when it gathered in spring training amid all the controversy over David Wells' book and Derek Jeter's alleged late nights on the town. As Torre said following the victory, "We'd like to come in and not be surprised by winning.''

Well, he won't have to worry about that. After losing in the first round last year and raising questions in the first game against Minnesota, the Yankees will be the overwhelming favorite in the championship series, regardless of whether their opponent is Oakland or Boston. For one thing, the Yankees have home-field advantage plus two full days off while their opponents will have flown two cross-country trips in less than 48 hours.

"I'd like to say that's an advantage but we've won the World Series doing that one year and we've gone to the World Series the next year doing that,'' Torre said. "This is the postseason. You don't get tired until it's all over.''

Well, if the travel and fatigue aren't an issue, the Athletics would likely be without Cy Young candidate Tim Hudson, who left Game 4 with a strained oblique, while Pedro Martinez wouldn't be available to pitch until Game 3 for Boston.

And if that isn't enough advantage, then the Yankees' starting rotation should be. Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Wells are four of the game's best -- "They remind me of the old Braves,'' Torre said -- and they're on a roll. Each pitched at least seven innings this series and combined for a 1.88 ERA. They allowed only three runs the final three games.

"People keep asking about last year and what the difference was. That's the difference,'' Torre said. "Last year we just didn't pitch well. We didn't pitch up to our standards. And I said going into this series, I just felt more comfortable with the way we were pitching toward the end of the year.

"I think we may have drained the starters, not meaning to. We seemed to make a lot out of this home-field advantage stuff. I think both emotionally and physically they may have had to give us more than they really needed to at that point.''

Wells likely won't wear pinstripes after this month -- he won no friends with his book and he'll be 41 next year -- but he guaranteed himself another start for the Yankees by silencing the Twins on one run in 7 2/3 innings. "I never looked at it as my last start,'' he said, echoing the words Clemens spoke after beating the Twins 3-1 in Game 3.

The previous two games were fairly close but the Yankees blew open Game 4 early with six runs off Minnesota starter Johan Santana. "You can't stop the Yankees for four or five games,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Eventually they're going to get you.''

The Twins' payroll is one-third the Yankees -- Santana earned $335,000 this year while each of the Yankees four starters made about that (or substantially more) per start -- and they enter this offseason with their own questions. Will closer Eddie Guardado be back? Will first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz? Will late-season addition and MVP candidate Shannon Stewart?

"I have no idea. Ask (owner Carl Pohlad) or (general manager Terry Ryan),'' Mientkiewicz said. "We didn't think a lot of us would be back this year and they surprised us. Hopefully they will again.''

Meanwhile, the rest of us will have to get used to the old world order. The Twins are gone. The Rally Monkey is long gone. And Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Torre and the rest of the Yankees are all back in the American League championships, with their fans as loud and their chests puffed out as far as ever.

The Yankees even were the subject of a Saturday Night Live cartoon segment after Game 3, in which the team saves the world from an invading force of enormous, furry, slobbering aliens who shoot lightning from their paws and eat humans whole.

Naturally, Steinbrenner signs the alien leader to a $40 million contract.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.