Friday October 30th, 2009

NEW YORK -- Mark Teixeira is a man of routine -- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before the game, a power bar in the middle innings, a detailed plan for every spare hour. But in the postseason, his itinerary is interrupted by off days and series breaks, so he runs the risk of losing his way. When Teixeira came to the plate in the fourth inning of Game 2 of the World Series, he was batting .181 in the playoffs, looking suspiciously like Alex Rodriguez pre-2009. Here was another regular-season giant shrinking under October lights.

But just as Rodriguez eventually righted himself, so too did Teixeira. When he batted in the fourth, the Yankees were down 1-0 in the game and the series. They had only scored one run in 12 innings against the Phillies. Rodriguez had cooled from his torrid pace. The Yankees needed their other high-priced slugger -- the one whose contract pays him only $180 million -- to validate the windfall he received last winter.

With one vicious swat, at a high change-up from Pedro Martinez, Teixeira earned a crucial World Series stripe and put what he called "a little bit of a crack in their armor." The Yankees' offense did not exactly erupt against the Phillies, but they tied the Series at one game apiece, with the scene shifting to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Saturday night. Teixeira, who made numerous trips to Philly as a member of the Atlanta Braves, knows what kind of atmosphere is awaiting him. "This," he reasoned, "was a must-win."

Rodriguez carried the Yankees through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but now that he is 0 for 8 with six strikeouts in the World Series, it may be Teixeira's turn. He is a famously slow starter, at least when it comes to the regular season, and this April he batted just .200 with three home runs. He looked burdened by the contract and also by Rodriguez's hip injury, which added pressure and deprived him of protection in the lineup.

Once Rodriguez returned, and Teixeira found his routine, he was among the most potent sluggers in baseball. He batted .330 in May with 13 homers, en route to a wildly successful first season in New York. Teixeira befriended Rodriguez, avoided controversy and blended easily into the clubhouse. Teixeira fits every stereotype of the modern Yankee, never a hair out of place, posture perfectly upright, keenly aware of his image in addition to his numbers.

One of the Yankees' other new additions, starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, is much less buttoned up -- in fact, he usually leaves about three buttons undone. On Wednesday night, after Phillies starter Cliff Lee dominated the Yankees in Game 1, Burnett paused on the way to the kitchen in the Yankees clubhouse to listen to Lee's postgame interview. "He talked about confidence and he talked about belief in his stuff," Burnett said. Usually, Burnett is as mercurial as Lee is cool, but when he took the mound Thursday, he was trying to impersonate his fellow Arkansan.

With an untouchable curveball, Burnett baffled the Phillies for seven innings, another proud night for The Natural State. While Teixeira showed that the Yankees batting order can survive a Rodriguez slump, Burnett showed that the starting rotation can survive a CC Sabathia loss. Even though the Yankees have dropped home-field advantage, they should be encouraged that they have a second reliable starter for the rest of the series and a second slugger capable of carrying the offense.

It's not that Teixeira or Burnett were hopeless before. Burnett had two quality starts in these playoffs. Teixeira hit a walk-off home run against Minnesota in Game 2 of the ALDS and a three-run double against the Angels in Game 5 of the ALCS. But they were both terribly inconsistent, which might have been expected of Burnett, but not Teixeira. He approaches every day the same -- "Some people would call me obsessive compulsive," he said -- to reduce the variance in his performance.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi describes Teixeira as "a rhythm hitter," who needs to play every day in order to keep his swing in tune. The Phillies have to fear that Teixeira has finally discovered the rhythm of the postseason. The Yankees, on the other hand, have to fear that he will lose it again. His greatest enemy, after all, is upon him once more.

The off day.

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