By Jason Keidel
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As the Yankees wrapped up their most gripping pennant race since 1978, they are rewarded with an unknown opponent on the road. Does it matter whom they play? Or do their fates lie within themselves?
It’s no secret I said in May that the Yankees could not reach the World Series, much less win it. Shortly thereafter, they bolted out to a 10-game lead in the American League East, only to watch it shrivel like a punctured beach ball, only to salvage the season with guts, guile and Robinson Cano morphing into the Incredible Hulk (batting .615 over his last nine games and 411 over his last 16).
And while we’ve drained our adrenaline reserves watching Bronx Bombers fend off the wonderfully resilient Baltimore Orioles, the fates of two men will fix or foil the Yankees in October.
The pinstriped recipe for success this season — the long ball and a long bullpen — will take a backseat to the sudden surge of southpaw pitching. The Yankees will remain in the playoffs for as long as CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte pitch to the back of their baseball cards.
Since returning from a broken ankle, Pettitte has allowed just three runs in three starts, and Sabathia has staved off speculation that his arm, weight and workload have finally conquered the hefty lefty for good. Sabathia has surrendered a paltry 12 hits and four runs over his last three starts (spanning 24 innings), while striking out 23.
Pettitte, the laconic, iconic playoff hero, etched his name into Yankees October archives in 1996 when he outdueled John Smoltz in Game 5 of the World Series, 1-0. Paul O’Neill lunged into the right-field wall, snagging a line drive and saving the game.
Since then Pettitte has worn a symbolic crown as this epoch’s Whitey Ford.
No one doubts either pitcher’s heart. Sabathia’s legend was laminated in 2008, when the Brewers asked him to pitch practically every other game in September and he obliged, leading Milwaukee into the playoffs with a stunning display of skill and will. And to risk his bejeweled left arm in a contract year speaks to his selflessness.
Yankees fans don’t like to admit defeat in any form, but it doesn’t take a jeweler’s eye to see that Phil Hughes has never lived up to the titanic expectations heaped upon his broad back five years ago. Despite the hyperbole surrounding him since he was hailed as the next pitching phenom, Hughes has been a bust. And even if you are impressed by his 16 wins this season — or his 13 losses — he’s still a No. 4 starter who still hasn’t won a road playoff game.
Ivan Nova, channeling his inner Rex Ryan by saying he’s the best pitcher on the planet, needs more postseason seasoning. Hiroki Kuroda is a solid veteran, but still a variable.
Two thorns in the Yanks’ historical side — the Tigers and Rangers — are in the tournament, but Baltimore could do New York a serious solid by purging the Rangers in the Wild Card game. And then the Yankees can pray that Oakland can clip Detroit, their ace (Justin Verlander) and Triple Crown savant (Miguel Cabrera).
If the Yankees are to live up to the maddening mandate of a World Series crown every fall, they will need two men who have worn it to lead them. Pettitte and Sabathia have heft to carry the load, assuming they stay healthy.
Are the Yanks doomed if CC and Pettitte don’t take their ‘A’ game into the postseason? Offer your thoughts and comments in the section below…