By Ernie Palladino
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The 2018 baseball season will arrive quicker than Aaron Judge can strike out on a breaking pitch around the knees. So, if the Yankees have any lingering disappointment in their runner-up finish in the ALCS, they’d best get over it fast.
The real pressure to win lies ahead.
Actually, it started when Greg Bird flied out to George Springer in center for the final out of Game 7, sending the Astros into a World Series against the Dodgers. If missing out on the big stage left the Yankees’ hearts empty, imagine how the Fox executives felt after seeing an exciting, history-laden series with L.A. go out the window for a bland matchup of two longtime National League opponents with nary an interesting moment between them.
The difference is that those corporate suits will always have the next World Series to look forward to, unless, of course, they stop paying MLB for the rights.
The Yanks have no such security. And since they advanced as far as they did in what was supposed to be a developmental year for newbies such as Judge and Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird, human nature dictates that even better postseason runs are ahead, and on a yearly basis.
Only, it doesn’t work like that in most cases. As teams have proved over and over, it’s one thing to have a burgeoning dynasty on paper. It’s quite another to actually accomplish it.
That’s where the pressure to win comes in. If the Yankees’ young roster felt any heat at all during the playoffs, wait until they hit spring training. All of baseball nation’s attention will beam itself into Tampa with laser-like sharpness. Every move Judge, Sanchez, Bird and their growing ace Luis Severino make will be studied, dissected and extrapolated.
They will head into the season as the odds-on favorite not just to participate in the ALCS, but to win it.
Woe be unto them if they fall short. With the roster they have and the seasoning they received in fighting back from 0-2 deficits against both Cleveland and Houston, they would be in for no small amount of shame if a “one-hit wonder” tag would ever be applied to the franchise.
It can happen, though. Look at the Mets. Two years after their World Series appearance and one year after a wild-card berth, their pitching staff was supposed to play daddy to the rest of the National League. Yoenis Cespedes was supposed to lead the lineup to even greater heights than the last two months of the 2015 World Series run. Instead, the awesome quintet of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Steve Matz turned into an injured mess, the offense struggled, and the whole thing collapsed into a 92-loss season.
Who expects anything out of the Mets now?
The Yankees are too proud a franchise with too much history to ever want that fate. But to avoid it, they must first stay healthy. Then, they must overcome the pressure of expectations, something they never encountered during the season or the playoffs.
Only those within the clubhouse and executive suites of Yankee Stadium expected success this year. The hot start produced more questions about authenticity than postseason possibilities. The post-All-Star break slump had folks shrugging their shoulders at the realities of a young team coming back down to earth.
Their September sent hearts soaring. And the wild-card, ALDS and ALCS, all navigated with the grit of a fighter punching his way off the ropes, was fun and exciting for as long as it lasted.
But it was all gravy. Great fun. Great games.
But pressure? That comes now, when all eyes will focus on a roster no longer in the developmental stage but which will undergo some amount of change. Free agent CC Sabathia, the rotation’s emotional rock, could be headed elsewhere. And if they don’t hand manager Joe Girardi another contract, it would mean a switch in philosophy.
How the youngsters handle the changes as the fans and fates turn up the real heat will determine how far they’ll go.
If the Yanks thought they felt pressure the last couple of weeks, wait until next season rolls around.
They ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino