Yankees ride momentum into playoffs
New York won 16 of 20 to win AL East division title
BOSTON -- In years past, Joe Torre has used the final week or two before the postseason to rest his battered players, set up his starting rotation and keep his relievers fresh for October.
The Yankees haven't had that luxury this season, as they scratched and clawed their way to another American League East title despite being four games out on the morning of Sept. 11.
Instead of lining up Randy Johnson for Game 1 of the Division Series, the Yankees will go with Mike Mussina, who will be available only because New York was able to clinch on Saturday instead of Sunday.
Instead of giving Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi a few days of rest to heal their respective nagging injuries, the sluggers were forced to play every day, helping the Yanks win 16 of 20 on their way to their eighth straight division title.
To Derek Jeter, none of this is bad for his team.
"I've always said it; it's not the best team that wins the World Series," Jeter said. "It's the hottest team."
Jeter and the Yankees are certainly hot, having lost consecutive games just twice since Aug. 11 and once since Sept. 1.
"We've been playing hard every day the whole way, which is good for our focus," said Jorge Posada. "We have to be sharp, so it could be a positive for us."
"This ballclub has been pretty consistent for the past month," Torre said. "They have been as devoted, dedicated and hungry as I've ever seen a club in this period of time."
For the past three weeks, the Yankees have said over and over that every game is like a playoff game.
Starting Tuesday, each one will be.
But the urgency with which New York has played over the past month should work to the Yankees' advantage, as long as they can maintain the intensity they have shown in recent weeks.
"I'd like to think it works on our behalf," Torre said. "To be in the urgency mode in the past three weeks, these have been our playoffs. We never thought in terms of winning series over the last three weeks, we thought in terms of winning every game. That's the way you need to go into the postseason."
"We've been in postseason mode for about a month, kind of similar to what the Red Sox were last year," said Alex Rodriguez. "We were battling to come from behind and battling to get in. I think it does help us."
In each of the past three seasons, a Wild Card winner has won the World Series, as the Angels, Marlins and Red Sox all rode the wave of momentum from capturing the final postseason berth.
The Yankees accomplished the same feat, though they were able to win their division title instead of settling for the Wild Card. As a result, they are playing their best ball of the season at the right time, giving them a good feeling heading into October.
"This team has a lot of character," said Rodriguez. "The fact that we've been through so much, that makes us dangerous in October."
More than four million fans crammed themselves into Yankee Stadium this season, giving the Bronx Bombers quite a home-field advantage.
The support of those fans helped the Yankees to an impressive 53-28 record at home, and when it comes to October, no fans have more recent history than those in the Bronx, who have watched the Yanks go deep into the playoffs in each of the past 11 years.
The "House That Ruth Built" is considered by many to be baseball's cathedral. Nine of the Yankees' 26 World Series titles have been clinched at home, most recently in 1999, when New York completed a four-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves.
The fans -- particularly the "Bleacher Creatures" in right field -- are a part of the action, getting the night started with their daily roll call. If you've never seen this ritual, pay close attention to each player as his name is called by the Yankee faithful.
Right-handers traditionally have trouble taking advantage of their power at the Stadium, but two of the Yankees' biggest sluggers have not had that problem. Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield combined to hit 45 homers at Yankee Stadium, more than any right-handed duo in team history.
That said, left-handed hitters should have a field day with the short porch in right, which measures just 314 feet from home plate.
Although the Yankees weren't able to set up their rotation as they would have liked, it may not be such a big deal for New York.
Shawn Chacon (4-1, 2.23 ERA in September) and Aaron Small (5-0, 3.35 ERA) have pitched as well as anyone in the past month, so whatever order the starters happen to fall, the Yankees are confident that they can get the job done. Johnson, who will likely go in Game 3, is 6-0 with a 1.93 ERA in his last eight starts.
"Our pitching staff has carried us since August," Posada said. "As soon as we saw we had a chance, they stepped it up and took care of us. They deserve a lot of credit, especially Chacon, Small and Randy."
"We had a lot of ups and downs this year, a lot of hurdles to get over," said Mussina, who missed more than three weeks with an elbow injury. "The guys that came in here and took the place of guys that were injured, they're the reason we're standing here now."
New York's October opponents know that they will have their hands full with the Bombers, who are in search of the franchise's first championship since 2000.
"Let me tell you, the Yankees, it's a team that you have to be careful with in the playoffs, because right now, they have a lot of veteran pitchers," said Boston's David Ortiz. "The past couple of years that I've been here playing against them over and over and over, they know how to deal with situations better than anyone I've played against."
"We'd like to believe we have a long way to go," Torre said. "We have to win 11 games, and we have to stay at a level to allow us to do that. We've been as good as we've been all year the last few weeks."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.