By Jason Keidel
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If it’s possible, if you can see over the pyramid of cash, the titanic $200 million payroll, the Yankees were overlooked this year, the presumed bridesmaids in the AL East. I, for one, was supremely cynical about the team’s chances this year once Philadelphia stole Cliff Lee from their platinum paws and Andy Pettitte retired unexpectedly.

(And who would have thought that out of all the young pitching the Yankees flaunted a few years ago, the one they dumped the fastest – Ian Kennedy – would be the best? Kennedy, the favorite for the NL Cy Young, is only 20-4 with a 2.88 ERA, while Hughes meanders from medical appointments to the trainer’s table to epidurals to stiffness to… and Joba, despite the tailored pitch counts and coddling, gets Tommy John surgery.)

I didn’t believe in a pitching staff with a stiff (A.J. Burnett), two graybeards (Colon and Garcia), and an injury-prone prodigy (Hughes). Even with a deep lineup and solid bullpen, the Yankees were still subject to the adage that you go as far as your young limbs will carry you. But the Bombers proved the pundits wrong, moonwalking to the division crown and the best record in the American League.

NESN – the official television network of the Red Sox – predicted before this season that Boston would supplant the ’27 Yankees as the greatest team ever. You can understand why a few of us chuckle and snort over such foolishness. In fairness, I thought Boston was better than New York entering the season – as everyone else did – but I also thought it was Philadelphia’s season to lose, what with four aces bulging from the bullpen.

Grit is a campy handle, regurgitated so promiscuously that we don’t know when it applies. Well, smack that moniker on the Yankees, a team that won sans a sparkling rotation, without A-Rod for much of the season, without Rafael Soriano (their prized procurement over the winter) pitching well (if at all) for the bulk of the year, without Joba and Hughes making much noise, and without Jorge Posada’s mojo.

Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia pitched past the back of their baseball cards, finding an ephemeral fountain of youth when the Yankees were desperate to find a solid start from someone not named Sabathia. Both pitchers are suddenly showing their age, but they kept their arms intact long enough to guide the surging Yankees to 95 wins (so far).

The one constant – for 16 years running – is the immortal Mariano Rivera, who defies the deities, Father Time, and every measurement man uses to gauge middle-age pitchers.

And despite CC and Mo meeting their stratospheric expectations, neither is the squad’s best hurler in 2011. That would be David Robertson, who is called Houdini by his pinstriped brethren. Robertson has pitched to Playstation stats – 1.11 ERA, with 96 strikeouts in 64.2 innings (seriously). He has surrendered eight runs all year.

George Steinbrenner’s death is evident beyond the bronze memorials. The Yankees were downright gleeful after securing at least a wild card spot and then the division title on Wednesday, eagerly shaking hands, hopping in place, and spraying volcanic bottles of shaken champagne on each other.

But the mandate in the Bronx hasn’t changed, and the dynastic Yankees used to treat a division crown with a rigid, corporate formality.

Joe Girardi must be given some credit for the team’s monolithic drive in the face of many roadblocks to October. But even G.I. Joe’s job isn’t assured if his Yanks are bounced in the first round of the playoffs. A Steinbrenner still runs this team and they don’t run AL East crowns up the flagpole.

But for now, a roomful of popping corks and three-quarters of the Core Four acting like little boys must be a nice break from the New York media and the minefield of October baseball. Perhaps the adolescent celebration was warranted, particularly if there are more to come next month.

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Are you shocked by the Yankees’ success, or did you see it coming? Sound off on your Bombers fandom in the comments below…

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