NEW YORK (AP) — They had stumbled into October, playing the last two months of the season as if they were just another team, failing at the plate and on the mound uncharacteristically often.
For only the third time in their proud history, and the first since 1944, they failed to hold on after leading on Labor Day.
But now, as the weather turns crisp, the New York Yankees have regained their sharpness of the first four months, once again looking like the World Series champions of old in their first-round sweep of the Minnesota Twins.
“In here, we were never worried about that stuff,” Nick Swisher said Saturday night after the Yankees advanced to an AL championship series matchup against Texas or Tampa Bay. “I think in the postseason, experience plays a huge factor, and we have a lot of it in this clubhouse.”
New York was 66-37 through July before going 29-30 the rest of the way as numerous players wound up in the trainer’s room and some on the disabled list.
Andy Pettitte was sidelined from July 18 to Sept. 19 because of a strained left groin, and Alex Rodriguez was out from Aug. 20 to Sept. 5 with a strained left calf. Not long after he was acquired from Houston at the July 31 trade deadline, Lance Berkman spent two weeks on the disabled list with a sprained right ankle.
Mark Teixeira has played with a broken pinky toe on his right foot since being hit by a pitch from Oakland’s Vin Mazzaro on Aug. 31. A few days earlier, Teixeira injured his right thumb on a fielding play, an injury that eventually required a shot of painkiller.
Brett Gardner had a sore right wrist that needed a cortisone shot in mid-September, around the same time Swisher received a cortisone shot in his sore left knee.
As the Yankees lost 17 of their final 26 regular-season games and finished as the AL wild-card team, one game behind AL East champ Tampa Bay, manager Joe Girardi was criticized by some for giving regulars days off. Some fans said he was treating the games as if they were spring training.
“Some of our guys couldn’t play, and I think people took that as we weren’t trying,” Girardi said after the sweep was completed at Yankee Stadium. “Believe me, we were trying. We were trying to win our division. I mean, we wanted home-field advantage. We love playing here. There’s something about playing in this ballpark. And I think people misunderstood that. Swish couldn’t play for a week. I asked him every day, ‘Swish can you play today?’ Swish got tired of me asking. Gardy needed a shot. I think there was a misunderstanding. We handled a guy’s innings limit. Andy Pettitte was hurt. There was just things that we had to handle. And the month of September wasn’t necessarily a lot of fun for us. But we persevered.”
The 2000 Yankees lost 13 of their final 15 regular-season games, turning a nine-game AL East lead into a 2½-game margin. But they rebounded in the postseason to win their third straight World Series title.
Now, trying to become the first repeat champions since those 1998-00 Yankees teams, New York won a playoff series as a wild card for the first time and is on a similar surge heading into the ALCS starting Friday on the road.
The core four — Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Pettitte and Jorge Posada — instill a calm among their teammates, who didn’t fret over the September-October fade.
“Once that last game was over with, it’s a whole new season,” said Marcus Thames, whose two-run homer broke open the finale against the Twins. “From my locker I look over at Posada, and I watch the way someone like him goes about his business. He’s been there so often, it makes you relax when you look at him.”
While Tampa Bay won twice at Texas to force a decisive fifth game in their series at St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday night, the Yankees get five straight days off — more time to heal. They won’t even resume practice until Tuesday.
And their next opponent will use its ace to start the first-round finale — Cliff Lee for Texas, David Price for Tampa Bay — likely pushing them back to Game 3 in the next round at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 18.
For now, it’s time to relax. And rest.
“Definitely enjoy this for a couple of days,” Jeter said.