- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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TORONTO -- Finally, our long municipal nightmare is finally over. The New York Yankees are officially and irrevocably headed into the playoffs.
Whether they will go in as the bridesmaids or the bride has yet to be determined, and how long their flirtation with the month of October will last is anybody's guess.
There is still a division to be won, and home-field advantage to be decided, and matchups to be determined. There are bodies that need to be rested and healed, and games that still need to be won.
There are decisions that must be made that will go a long way in determining if the Yankees will begin the defense of their 2009 World Series championship at home or on the road, against the Minnesota Twins or the Texas Rangers, and who will pitch which games and in what order.
All we know for sure is, a week from Wednesday the Yankees will play a postseason game somewhere, against someone, and CC Sabathia will be on the hiil.
Everything else is open to question, and those questions are for another day.
Tuesday night, it was all about answers. And for the first time in a week, the Yankees were finally able to provide a few by simply winning a baseball game -- a task that had of late become increasingly difficult for them to do.
Tuesday, they did it in a way that was absolutely predictable. Sabathia, their ace, their horse, their 21-game winner and the rock of their sometimes rocky starting rotation, pitched into the ninth inning and held the powerful Blue Jays to just one run on three hits. And in a way no one could have predicted, the Yankees drove in each of their six runs with an out.
They weren't particularly clutch (just 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position, and neither of those hits got a run home), they weren't at all powerful (eight of their nine hits were singles, one of them an infield hit), but they were efficient enough to finally win the game they have been trying to win for what seems like a month.
And when it was finally over, when Alex Rodriguez fielded Lyle Overbay's grounder and one-hopped a throw to Mark Teixeira for the final out, the on-field celebration was decidedly muted, just a double handshake line across the infield. Nobody's feet left the ground, because no team really wants to go too crazy celebrating its eighth win over the past 22 games.
The scene in the clubhouse, of course, was another matter. Bottles of Henckell Trocken champagne, $13.99 a bottle at your local liquor store, competed with cans of Labatt's Blue and Blue Light for garbage can space as they were shaken, cracked and sprayed around the room at anyone within firing range. The lockers were draped in plastic and the place stunk like a brewery. A marauding band of champagne shooters, led by Nick Swisher, descended upon teammates, reporters, technicians. And predictably, it was mostly the guys who hadn't been there before who acted like they hadn't.
Meanwhile, those who had, such as Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, found quiet corners in which to chat, and Rodriguez somehow managed to emerge from some concealed refuge a half-hour into the festivities without a drop of liquid on him.
"Nobody messes with the old guys," he said. "This is all about the young."
And yet neither A-Rod nor Jeter nor Pettitte --- Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera managed to make themselves scarce until the room was cleared of media -- frowned upon the celebration that to them may have rightfully seemed, if not premature, a bit overdone considering what still lies ahead of this team.
"You don't take it for granted, because it's tough to do," said Jeter, who had one of his better nights of a difficult month, with two hits, three runs scored and an RBI on a fifth-inning ground out. "A lot of times when you get close to the finish line, it gets difficult to win. This is a celebration of a 162-game schedule, not just the last two weeks."
Those two weeks had been horrendous, beginning with a three-game sweep in Texas, followed by losing two out of three in Tampa and their share of first place to the Rays, and then six of their next 11 games. Rivera blew two saves in three days and three saves in a month. Pettitte, who appeared to have come back without a hitch after two months on the disabled list, looked in his last start like a guy at the start of spring training. Even Sabathia got lit up his last time out.
Suddenly, not only was first place in the AL East very much in doubt, but even their spot in the playoffs was under serious attack.
Then, suddenly, it was over. Sabathia gave them the kind of outing they are paying him $23 million a year for. The stubborn Boston Red Sox were finally giving it up in Chicago. And even though the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Baltimore Orioles to maintain their slim hold on the division, at least now the Yankees knew that they would be at the party, too.
"It's always a relief when you get into the playoffs," Jeter said. "I don't care what year it is or how you do it."
The way they did it was not very Yankees-like, with three sacrifice flies, two ground outs and a bases-loaded walk accounting for all the scoring. But it didn't matter because Sabathia, who ran his record to 21-7, was virtually untouchable after allowing a home run to Travis Snider in the third for the Jays' only run.
"You can't say enough about CC," Rodriguez said. "I'm speechless when it comes to him. He's been everything we've expected and a lot more. He's been a dream for our franchise."
And just to set the Yankees universe right again, Rivera came on to nail down the last two outs of the ninth inning.
"It's nice when it's official," Teixeira said. "But no one in here is satisfied with our season. Everyone knows it's world championship or bust."
For now, at least, the Yankees can stop having to answer questions about when they would get to the playoffs and start answering questions about what they will do once they start.
Do they push ahead to win the division and secure the right to play seven of their first 12 games at home, where they have the second-best record in the AL? Or do they back off, allow their 36-year-old shortstop and their 39-year-old catcher and their gimpy-legged 35-year-old third baseman to heal up and try to win these remaining four games with the kids who were spraying champagne all over the room?
The players, of course, want to play. Not one of them -- neither Teixeira nor Jeter nor A-Rod -- claimed to want or need any time off. "We got Thursday off, don't we?" Jeter said. "So there you go."
But Girardi seemed to be of another mind. "We still have aspirations of winning our division and of having home-field advantage," he said. "But I got to pick my spots. There's definitely some tired bodies in there. If I give some of these guys [Wednesday] off, they'll have two days off this week. It's something I'll have to think about."
Already, Girardi decided to skip Andy Pettitte's scheduled start and throw him in one of the now-meaningless games over the weekend in Boston to set him up for a playoff start next week. An educated guess says he will probably go Sunday and be on rotation to start Game 3 a week from Saturday. No doubt, A.J. Burnett will get a start in Boston, probably Saturday to set him up for a Game 2 start next Thursday. Phil Hughes might go Friday and come back for Game 4 a week from Sunday.
But this time, it won't matter. After 22 other teams head home on Oct. 3, the Yankees will be one of the eight that will still be playing baseball. That seemed like a given a month or so ago, but was awfully close to being taken away over the past two weeks.
Now, that nightmare is over. The Yankees have October back. Now, the trick is to see how long they can keep it.
The Yankees ended a two-week nightmare with yet another playoff berth.