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In sweeping Boston, the Yankees finally get their money's worth

NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter stood at his locker late Sunday night and from the look on his face, the tone of his voice, and the subdued nature of the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, it would have been hard to imagine that this was the residence of the team that had just completed a devastating four-game sweep of their archrivals and nearest pursuers that left them with the best record in baseball and the biggest divisional lead in the game.

(BOX SCORE | RECAP)"It's still too early to look at the scoreboard," he said in his best monotone. "I'm not going to run out and look at what Boston's doing tomorrow."

No one knows better than a four-time world champion like Jeter that seasons don't become special in August, especially not in this town, and definitely not for this team. That has to wait until the pressure rises and the temperature drops, until the reward for winning a big series is a champagne celebration and not a three-game set with the Blue Jays. But should this Yankees season end triumphantly for the first time since the start of the decade, this weekend's domination of Boston that swelled their lead in the AL East to a season-high 6½ games will be looked upon as the moment when the Yankees championship aura returned to the Bronx for the first time all year.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it arrived at the same time the Red Sox did. Despite posting the best record in the game since mid-May, the Yankees have rarely looked like the unquestioned team to beat in the AL East, to say nothing of the rest of baseball. That was never more apparent than during eight previous games with Boston, all Yankees losses that called to question their ability to outlast their more successful rivals.

But the Yankees did more in the last four days than they did in their first four months of the season combined to establish their preeminence as the best team in the game. While the hitting was impressive (a .299 average and nine home runs) and the defense solid (only one error) it was the starting pitching, that most significant of October variables, that is most responsible for the sweep, and for their status as front-runners. For the first time in 36 years, the Yankees got three consecutive starts of at least seven scoreless innings, and they came from three men -- A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte -- who will figure prominently in the Yankees' postseason plans.

This series, then, and perhaps the entire division, may have been won as much in December and January as it was in August. That was when the Yankees signed all three of those pitchers, at the cost of $36 million, to beef up a starting rotation that had sprung a series of question marks in a disappointing third place finish the year before. And while all three have had various moments of success to date, this was the first time all delivered the kinds of sterling efforts on consecutive days that would make the Yankees heavy favorites in any postseason series."Big players did big things for us in this series," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "This club is very, very talented."

Much of that talent was imported, often at great cost, but it was hard to find a high-priced player who didn't earn his paycheck in this series. Both Burnett and Sabathia took shutouts into the eighth inning, and Mark Teixeira went 5-for-17 with two home runs, including the go-ahead blast in the eighth on Sunday that proved to be the winning blow. In their most significant series since donning pinstripes, all three weng along way toward justifying those massive contracts."I don't feel like I've earned my stripes yet," said Burnett, who signed a five-year $82.5 million deal in the offseason and delivered 7 2/3 stellar shutout innings on Friday night. "The fans aren't going to think that, either, because they take it so seriously. We have a lot more time."

"It's all about wins," Teixeira said. "If I had hit six home runs in this series and we lost four games, it's meaningless. This entire series, everyone pitched in and that's great to see."

If nothing else, their performances electrified the new Yankee Stadium, giving it for the first time the feel of the old one. "That's Yankee Stadium for you," said Teixeira, whose go-ahead home run in the eighth inning on the heels of Johnny Damon's game-tying shot and sent the crowd into a homer-happy state of hysteria. "I remember the old one, [it sometimes] felt like the place was shaking and that was the feeling tonight."

"Coming here as a Blue Jay, it was never like this," Burnett said. "It's definitely better than that. It's just amazing to me that guys are behind you like they are. It's hard to even describe."

If Burnett is looking for someone to help explain it, he need only ask the man whose locker is right next to his in the Yankees spaceship-sized clubhouse. Jeterknows a championship crowd when he hears one, and he knows a title team when he sees one. This past weekend in the Bronx, everyone finally got a glimpse of both.

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