Commentary

Perfect '10? Tough to top '09 for Yanks

Yankees can repeat, but don't bank on another year of outrageously good fortune

Updated: April 30, 2013, 2:14 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

They can buy the best players and they can buy a certain level of performance and they can certainly buy enough wins to keep them in contention year in and year out.

You can even make the case that, every so often, the New York Yankees can buy themselves a World Series championship.

But there is one thing not even George Steinbrenner's checkbook can buy: the kind of luck the Yankees enjoyed last season.

That is why, even though the team might look better on paper than the one that won 103 regular-season games and tore through October and early November to win its 27th championship and first since 2000, there is no guarantee that the 2010 Yankees will match the accomplishments of the 2009 version.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera & Derek Jeter
Brian J. Myers/US PresswireMariano Rivera and Derek Jeter weren't just another year older in '09. They were another year better.

In fact, you might be nuts to even expect such a thing.

Can the Yankees do it again?

Of course they can. Any team with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera on its roster not only can win it all, but should.

But will they do it again?

That is the $200 million question.

Last year, the Yankees not only had the best roster in baseball, they had maybe the best luck in the recent history of professional sports.

All season long, the injury bug was out of town. Aside from A-Rod, not one of their regulars missed a significant portion of playing time.

And for their aging Core of Four, Father Time seemed to have taken a timeout. Jeter and Rivera, 35 and 39 years old, respectively, enjoyed their best seasons in years. After an injury-riddled 2008, Jorge Posada returned as a dangerous presence in the lineup. Despite a subpar second half, when the Yankees needed him most, Andy Pettitte did what he always does in the postseason. He won, four out of five times out.

The new additions performed as if they had been playing in the Bronx all their lives. And Joe Girardi, the semi-new manager, had such a golden touch all year it seemed as if he could have reformed health care, righted the economy and ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in his spare time, if anyone had bothered to ask him.

If by mid-October there was any lingering doubt that 2009 had been preordained to be the Yankees' season, it was washed away by the downpour that delayed Game 6 of the ALCS by one day and allowed the beleaguered Yankees pitching staff a much-needed day of rest.

Suddenly the Angels, who had won Game 5 in Anaheim behind John Lackey, were threatening to claw their way back into it and the Yankees' three-man pitching rotation was looking awfully flimsy. But it turned out even Mother Nature was a Yankees fan last year. A well-rested Pettitte shut down the Angels in Game 6 and set the Yankees' world back on its axis in time for the World Series.

Last year was a dream season in just about every way.

All the customary Yankees drama took place in February and March: Joe Torre wrote a kiss-and-tell; Rodriguez was both outed as a steroids cheat and then hustled off to Colorado for potentially catastrophic hip surgery; three new additions costing nearly a half-billion dollars were expected to shoulder a significant portion of the load; and it was anybody's guess how long it would take for one of the Old Guard Yankees to wring Nick Swisher's neck. (The smart money was on Posada.)

It was a tumultuous spring, to say the least, and could have been a harbinger of a spectacular crash-and-burn.

Instead, it turned out to be the trip of a lifetime, Secretariat's Belmont run on a baseball diamond. Once the regular season began -- and it truly began on May 8 in Baltimore, when A-Rod, returning from his preseason hip surgery, belted the first pitch he saw out of Camden Yards -- it became increasingly obvious that the Yankees were the best team in baseball.

This in spite of dropping the first eight games they played against their archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, blowing two out of three games at home to the Philadelphia Phillies in May, or getting swept by their perennial October nemeses, the L.A. Angels, in the final series before the All-Star break, three miserable games in which they allowed 29 runs.

After A-Rod's return, the Yankees went an incredible 90-44. The Red Sox, the team the Yankees couldn't beat until Aug. 6, turned out to be a non-factor. So did the Angels, who didn't appear to belong on the same field with the Yankees in October.

By the time the World Series rolled around, the "A-Rod is an October Bust" storyline had been shattered, the "CC, A.J. and Tex Can't Handle New York" storyline was in ruins, and the "Joe Girardi is Too Tightly Wound to Manage the Yankees" angle had been proven farcical.

Sabathia, whose delay in signing fueled rumors he was reluctant to play in New York, pitched like a Cy Young Award winner. Hitting behind A-Rod, Teixeira had an MVP-caliber season. Whatever A.J. Burnett didn't provide on the mound he made up for with his postgame Soupy Sales routine, creating a new Yankees tradition. Who says there's no pie-ing in baseball?

[+] EnlargeMark Teixeira
Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMIHealthy and wealthy: High-priced addition Mark Teixeira only missed six regular-season games.

Even Swisher, pressed into everyday service when Xavier Nady went down, proved to be a revelation. And just about every move Girardi made turned out to be the right one, from flip-flopping Johnny Damon and Jeter at the top of the lineup to carefully rationing A-Rod's playing time, to gambling on using a three-man starting rotation throughout the postseason.

It helped immensely that all season long, Girardi was dealing with a full deck. Jeter and Damon, both 35, played 153 and 143 games, respectively. Swisher appeared in 150, Hideki Matsui, despite two aching knees, played 142. Teixeira played 156 and Robinson Cano missed just one game all year.

And every one of them performed at or near peak expectations. Jeter rebounded from a so-so 2008 to hit .334. Damon hit 24 home runs, matching his career high. Despite a horrible April, Teixeira (.292-39-122) posted his best numbers since 2005.

And Rivera went 51 appearances between blown saves, from April 24 to Sept. 18.

Is it conceivable, or even possible, that such a confluence of happy events could occur again in one Yankees lifetime, let alone in consecutive seasons?

Plain logic and common sense tells you it can't.

To begin, let's dispense with the obvious: Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte are all a year older, which rarely means a year better.

Sabathia, Teixeira, Burnett and Swisher were as good as everyone knew they were capable of being, and maybe even better than anyone not named Steinbrenner could have expected.

This year, there is a fresh crop of newbies -- Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson and Javier Vazquez -- who will be forced to endure the uniquely Bronxian rite of passage, performing for a fan base that makes the crowds in the Roman Colosseum appear patient.

Because the hard truth is, it is not the Yankees' opponents who are their biggest skeptics, it is Yankee Nation itself.

Ownership, management, player and fan alike have a lot in common with Charlie Dressen, the one-time manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who, having watched Willie Mays make a seemingly impossible catch against his team, was famously and perhaps apocryphally quoted as kvetching, "I'd like to see him do it again."

As always, the questions are many. Can Granderson hit lefties well enough to play center field on an everyday basis?

Relieved of the burden of being a No. 1 starter, will Vazquez thrive in his second go-round with the Yankees as a back-of-the-rotation guy?

Can Nick Johnson hit enough to replace Damon in the two-hole? More importantly, can he stay off the DL?

What if Posada -- who turns 39 in August -- goes down? Is Francisco Cervelli capable of filling that void? And can Cano fill the canyon left in the batting order by the departure of Matsui, the World Series MVP?

Even if those questions are answered to everyone's satisfaction, it still leaves the biggest mystery of all to be solved:

Can any season go as smoothly as 2009 went for the Yankees?

Of all the things George Steinbrenner's money can buy, the free ride the Yankees enjoyed last season is never for sale, at any price.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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