CC Sabathia stood in the center of the Yankees sprawling clubhouse on Sunday afternoon celebrating their division championship and their official return to the top of the American League East. It was a perfect spot for the man who was at the center of the Yankees rebuilding efforts in the offseason and the center of their midseason surge that carried them from 6 1/2-games out in mid-May to a clinching celebration with still a week to go in the regular season.
Now it was champagne, and not the pressures of carrying a pitching staff that still has some question marks heading into October, that had drenched Sabathia's broad back. "Today feels unbelievable," he said with a broad smile worthy of a man who has gone 11-1 with a 2.36 ERA in the second half.
Perhaps nobody knows that feeling better than Sabathia, who is headed to his third straight postseason with his third different team, and who justified his massive $161 million contract by being exactly the hoss that the Yankees so desperately needed him to be. Certainly nobody knows better than Sabathia that he could use the week off that the Yankees have to rest his important arm, which has now gone over 225 innings for the third straight season.
Keeping their ace as fresh as possible is one of, if not the biggest, benefit the Yankees will find to having assured themselves of their spot in the postseason hierarchy, but it is not the only one. Before being drenched by a coterie of his players armed with beer bottles, manager Joe Girardi scanned his happy group of players and said, "Now we have a chance to play some guys who might be able to help us. Everyone in this room could mean a lot."
Girardi has seen the benefits to clinching early -- and the downside of having to fight to the regular season's finish. As a player, he was with the 1998 Yankees team that wrapped up the AL East in early September, then rolled through the postseason with a 11-2 record. He also played for the 1995 Rockies that won the wild card on the last day of the season and then got bounced out of the playoffs by the Atlanta Braves in four games.
So is this the right amount of time to be able to rest players for the postseason while still allowing them to maintain their edge? "I don't know that there is an exact right amount of time," Girardi said, wiping the champagne from his face. "I do know we don't play just to make the postseason."
Not to spoil the champagne party, but there is a bit of caution in recent baseball history. In this decade, only one eventual World Series champion -- the 2007 Red Sox -- wrapped up a playoff spot with more than three games remaining. To be sure, some teams in that time had known for weeks that they were headed to the playoffs, but didn't make it official until much later in the year. And there are other factors that are much more indicative of postseason success or failure -- a strong bullpen, home-field advantage, a healthy lineup, etc. -- but it is instructive at least to see how much time off recent world champions had before beginning their march to the title. Here is how much time remained for each of the would-be champs when they locked up their postseason spot:
2000 Yankees: 3 games left2001 Diamondbacks: 22002 Angels (wild card): 32003 Marlins (wild card): 22004 Red Sox (wild card): 32005 White Sox: 32006 Cardinals: 0 (only had to play 161 games that season)2007 Red Sox: 82008 Phillies: 1
Entering the final week of play, the Cardinals and Yankees have clinched their divisions, the Dodgers have wrapped up a playoff spot and it is only a matter of time before the Red Sox, Angels and Phillies do likewise. Yet there are still 14 teams mathematically alive for a playoff berth, but only the Twins in the American League and the Braves in the National League remain legitimate threats to overtake teams in front of them and steal a postseason spot.
At the start of the month, it seemed the Tigers would be in the same position as the Yankees. Instead, Detroit enters the final week facing a critical four-game series with the Twins in Motown starting on Monday night with just a two-game lead in the AL Central. The last time the Tigers played a regular-season series as cliché-inducing important was in 1987, when they swept the Blue Jays in the last three games of the season to surge past Toronto and win the AL East by two games. Three years prior, the Tigers had rampaged to a 15-game margin of victory in the division en route to their most recent World Series title, but three years later, Tigers star Jack Morris said, "In 1984, we won 111 games and basked in glory. But this feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration means much, much more."
This year's Tigers have to be both exhausted and exhilarated, as they try to stave off a September collapse that would be yet another blow in a tough sports year for their city. "It's good pressure," Tigers manager Jim Leyland told MLB.com recently. "If you handle it right, it's good pressure. If you handle it wrong, it's bad pressure ... It's a fun time. You're in a pennant race. You're playing the team that's right behind you. You can't ask for any more than that. A lot of teams are eliminated already. We're still playing for something and in a pretty good position."
No matter which of those AL Central teams finally emerges from the dark of the postseason struggle into the light of October, they will do so with serious question marks that they won't have much time to correct. The Tigers would surely like to try and get Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson performing at peak ability, just as the Twins would like to give leading AL MVP candidate Joe Mauer as much rest as possible after another long year behind the plate. For both teams, it means having the chance to line up their rotations to maximum effect. For instance, Tigers ace Justin Verlander is scheduled to pitch on Tuesday. If the Twins continue to hang around, Verlander would be lined up to pitch in the regular-season finale on Sunday, October 4, which would likely keep him out until Game 3 of the playoffs. But if the Tigers are able to wrap up the AL Central before the last day, Verlander would be in line to pitch the series opener, which would in turn allow him to make two starts in the ALDS.
Sabathia has been through both scenarios in recent years. In 2007, the Indians clinched the AL Central with a week remaining, and Sabathia made just one start over the final 10 days of the regular season, a seven-inning tune-up in a win over the Royals. But extra rest didn't help him much in the playoffs. Sabathia made his first postseason start that year on five days' rest and labored through a 114-pitch, five-inning outing against the Yankees, although he did get credit for the win. His next two starts came eight days later and six days later, but he got knocked around to the tune of a .350 opponent average and 8.80 ERA.
The next season, he carried the Brewers to October with a complete-game victory against the Cubs on the last day of the season. Forced to pitch on three days rest again in Game 2, he didn't make it out of the fourth inning in a 5-2 loss that buried the Brewers in a two-game hole from which they never recovered.
"I definitely feel fresher this year than last year," Sabathia said on Sunday, almost one year to the day after he pitched the Brewers to their first postseason in 26 years by making his last three starts on three days rest. "It'll be great to get a few days off and make a start where I can pitch with a week's rest. It's more of a mental [exhaustion] than physical, but now I'll get to stay on five days' rest. This is just like with Cleveland two years ago."
This year, Sabathia will have a postseason tune-up start this week before opening Game 1 of the American League Division Series on either October 7 or 8 at Yankee Stadium. But while he welcomes any time off he can get, Andy Pettitte, who will also get one more regular-season and is a leading candidate to fill his customary role of Game 2 starter in a postseason series, is still looking to get back on track after a handful of shaky outings down the stretch. "I want to keep going," he said, "I want to grind it out. I've struggled to get my rhythm back, the last two starts I struggled with that early."
Pettitte and the rest of the Yankees now have a week to work out the kinks. Whether a team inches its way across the line at the last moment or coasts to the finish, all is forgotten the moment Game 1 begins. Which is why all the glories that the Yankees were so justifiably celebrating on Sunday -- their 100th win, the AL East title and home-field advantage throughout the postseason -- will mean so little if they don't have three more celebrations this year. While the Yanks were soaking their fancy new clubhouse, outside in the hallway, a Stadium worker was walking quickly down the concrete corridor echoing the same refrain over and over. "Eleven more," he said. "We have to get 11 more wins now." The real challenge still awaits, and the real work is yet to begin.