The Yankees' on-field celebration after sweeping away the Twins last Sunday night in Minnesota was among the more stilted in recent memory. In the seconds after BrendanHarris' groundout to Derek Jeter ended both the game and the series, most of the Yankees jogged to the area behind the pitchers' mound and more or less stood there, before someone decided that they should probably jump up and down for awhile. So they did that in a huddle for perhaps 30 seconds. Then they stopped and shook hands and gradually retreated into the visitors' clubhouse.
Things got a little more exuberant inside, once the alcohol was broken out -- Nick Swisher, for one, is not the type to allow an ALDS win to pass without giving somebody a thorough lager shampooing -- but it all still seemed a little subdued, for several reasons. One, it's always awkward to celebrate in someone else's building, as fans quietly file out. Two, even though the Yankees came from behind to win all three ALDS games, and hadn't won a playoff series in five years, they were supposed to win this one, against a Twins team that barely advanced out of the AL Central and has less than one-third of the Yankees' payroll. And three, the Yankees knew that their postseason work had only just begun.
"It feels good," said closer Mariano Rivera in the clubhouse, "but we haven't done anything yet. We have to keep going, keep fighting."
After all, the Los Angeles Angels were waiting.
Here are five keys to the ALCS:
And not, for once, by the Yankees. Since 2000, when Mike Scioscia became the Angels' manager, L.A. is 56-44 against New York in the regular season and the playoffs, for a winning percentage (.560) that is far and away the best of any AL club's during that period (the Red Sox are second, at .464). The Angels also ousted the Yankees from the postseason in both 2002 and 2005. That the Angels have the Yanks' number is something that has clearly entered the thoughts of many New York fans and tabloid editors: "HORRIBLE HALOS: WHY THE YANKEES FEAR THE ANGELS," trumpeted the front page of the New York Post on Tuesday. While the Yankees had one of their better showings of the past decade against the Angels during the regular season, splitting the season series 5-5, they allowed 10 more runs (65) than they scored (55). On Sunday, the Angels finally -- and resoundingly -- ended their recent history of losing against the Red Sox. It might now be the Yankees' turn to treat their own nemeses similarly.
Both of these teams can score, and score often. The Yankees led the majors in runs scored during the regular season with 915 (5.65 per game), but the Angels weren't far behind, finishing second with a club-record 883 (5.45). The way in which they accumulated all those runs, however, was distinctly different. While both teams are adept at working counts and getting men on base (the Yankees .362 OBP was baseball's best, while the Angels' .350 OBP was third), Yankees manager Joe Girardi is usually content to have his base runners wait for their teammates to drive them in -- New York, after all, hit a team-record 244 home runs this season -- while Scioscia likes to move his runners around by doing things like calling for bunts (L.A. had an AL-leading 34 bunt hits in 2009, to the New York's 11) and for steals of third (22 for the Angels, 12 for the Yankees).
Scioscia doesn't have much of a choice but to play small ball: despite the addition of Bobby Abreu and the emergence of Kendry Morales, the Angels still hit only 173 homers this year, ranking them eighth in the AL. Girardi, meanwhile, has the personnel to change his offensive strategy if the situation dictates that he should, such as he did in Game 2 of the ALDS when speedy pinch-runner Brett Gardner did his best Dave Roberts impression, stealing second with one out in the bottom of the 10th and then advancing to third on an errant Joe Nathan throw. Gardner was ultimately doubled off third on a Johnny Damon liner, but he won't allow that to happen again, and the Yankees' superior offensive versatility should serve them well in the ALCS.
The Angels acquired 25-year-old Kazmir from the Tampa Bay Rays on Aug. 28 in part because of his familiarity with, and success against, the Yankees. In 15 career appearances (and 14 starts) against New York, Kazmir is 6-5 with a 2.67 ERA. He continued that trend this season, which was otherwise his worst as a pro: he went 2-1 with a 3.20 ERA against the Yankees, and 8-8 with a 5.14 ERA against everybody else. Kazmir appears set to start Game 4 and he'll need to continue his Yankee-slaying ways, because none of the Angels' other starters -- John Lackey (a career 4.66 ERA against New York), Joe Saunders (6.28) and Jered Weaver (5.88) -- has handled the Bombers nearly as well.
Girardi strongly indicated on Tuesday that he will use a three-man rotation of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte in this series (though poor weather could change this plan). That decision will not only keep Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen, where he is usually at his best, but will slide Chad Gaudin (2-0, 3.43 ERA in 11 appearance with New York) there, too. Chamberlain and Gaudin will augment a unit that had already developed into arguably the AL's finest, due not only to Rivera and Phil Hughes but to pleasant surprises like Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke and ALDS hero Dave Robertson.
The Angels' 'pen, meanwhile, is not nearly as dominant as it has been in the past. Its collective 4.49 ERA was the AL's fourth-worst, and its most reliable member is probably the 39-year-old journeyman Darren Oliver. Closer BrianFuentes' 48 saves led the majors, but he also blew seven opportunities and was generally so shaky that he not long ago was on the cusp of being forced to share his duties with Kevin Jepsen. The Yankees' propensity for coming from behind has been well documented -- twice in the ALDS they made Nathan, who is considered to be second only to Rivera among closers, look like, well, Darren Oliver -- and now that Alex Rodriguez seems to have taken a liking to late heroics the Yanks should have a distinct advantage in any game that remains in doubt once the starters have been pulled.
With apologies to the Phillies and the Dodgers, the Yankees and the Angels appear to be the two deepest and most talented clubs in baseball, and this ALCS is likely to be the premiere series of the 2009 postseason. The winner should be a heavy favorite to win a championship, no matter their opponent. Of course, the Yankees know that a charged ALCS battle can sometimes lead to a flat World Series performance against what is supposed to be an inferior NL team -- it happened to them in 2003, when they sent home the Red Sox on AaronBoone's 11th-inning, Game 7 homer, only to bow out rather meekly to the Marlins. But first things, as they say, first.
THE PICK: Yankees in six.