Stout pitching snaps Yanks' ALDS hex
Late homers count for something, but starters paved the road
MINNEAPOLIS -- The architect of the first Yankees team in five years to advance past the first round of the playoffs stood in an isolated corner of the Metrodome's visitors' clubhouse, his polo shirt largely untouched by the champagne raining from the ceiling.
This was one of the moments general manager Brian Cashman had in mind when he was booking his super-secret flight missions across the country, dashing off to the Bay Area to woo CC Sabathia and diverting his travels to Texas to court Andy Pettitte.
You can outslug opponents for all of the regular-season wins you want and hope for Alex Rodriguez to shake his postseason demons, but above all else, pitching wins in the postseason. The Yankees proved this again in their three-game American League Division Series sweep of the Minnesota Twins on Sunday.
"We didn't hit this series, outside of Alex, and yet we won all three games," Cashman said. "That's a credit to your pitching staff and your defense. You can point to all of the big pitching performances from our three starters and the bullpen."
So many of the headlines were given to A-Rod after he shrugged off his past playoff struggles to hit .455 with two big game-tying homers and six RBIs against the Twins, and those were well deserved. But in advancing for the first time since 2004, these Yankees leaned on their big three hurlers.
"It feels good to contribute and advance," Rodriguez said. "I don't have to overanalyze it, but I will tell you this -- we had three tremendously pitched games. That was the difference."
As Derek Jeter says, it's not like the Yankees had much trouble scoring runs in the regular season.
"To win the division, you've got to have starting pitching," manager Joe Girardi said. "To win the playoffs, you've got to have starting pitching. Our starting pitching was great, and now we have the opportunity to set up our starting pitching for the next round."
Sabathia pitched like an ace in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, holding the Twins to two runs (one earned) in 6 2/3 innings while walking none and striking out eight.
"That's what we've been doing all year," Sabathia said. "We've been pitching well, playing good defense and getting some timely hits. Hopefully, we can keep it going."
That series-opening 7-2 victory would be the breeziest the Yankees would enjoy in the ALDS. A.J. Burnett teamed with backup Jose Molina to hurl six innings of one-run ball in Game 2 but would accept nothing more than a no-decision in New York's 4-3, 11-inning victory, won on Mark Teixeira's first career postseason homer.
Then, in Game 3, Pettitte locked up with former teammate Carl Pavano in a surprising pitchers' duel. While Pettitte budged first, A-Rod and catcher Jorge Posada rescued him with solo homers, setting up a celebration after the series-clinching 4-1 victory.
"It's simple, it really is," Posada said. "The winning equation doesn't really change. You've just got to have strong pitching."
Combined with sterling relief pitching, highlighted by rookie Dave Robertson's amazing high-wire act in Game 2, Yankees pitchers posted a 1.55 ERA in 29 innings over the series, allowing 29 hits while walking nine and striking out 34.
New York's combined staff ALDS ERA in 2005, '06 and '07 -- when they exited at the hands of the Angels, Tigers and Indians, respectively -- was a bloated 5.25.
The three earned runs allowed by New York starters against Minnesota was a refreshing turn from a starting staff that allowed 15 runs in the four-game loss to the Indians in 2007 -- 12 of them by Chien-Ming Wang in 5 2/3 innings, three by Roger Clemens in his final big league appearance and none by Pettitte over 6 1/3 innings of gritty work.
NOT SO ANGELIC
Cashman downplayed the difference in preparation between those clubs, piloted by Joe Torre, and this team under the command of Girardi -- now undefeated in his first three games as a playoff skipper.
"We have deeper pitching right now -- we're deeper on the bench, the bullpen, offensively and we're healthy," Cashman said. "The teams we had with Joe Torre were well prepared and quality, but this particular team is a stronger team."
And they didn't even fully exhibit that offensively against the Twins. No one wanted a piece of A-Rod, and both Jeter and Posada had four hits and two RBIs.
"It seems like the whole postseason so far, we're kind of sputtering along a little bit, and maybe when we give up the lead, our guys fire right back and score some runs," Pettitte said.
But both Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher were 1-for-12 with four strikeouts, while Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera each had two hits in 12 at-bats.
"We've got nine guys out there that we're going to run out there every day in that lineup," Cashman said. "Thankfully, Alex was able to carry us in this series, but I'll tell you what -- we need everybody hitting on all cylinders for us."
In the bullpen, the names and faces may have changed plenty since the Yankees opened the season in April, but aside from Pettitte's brief September bout with left shoulder soreness, the big three at the top of the rotation have remained remarkably constant.
As long as the Yankees can lean on those arms to push forward, Cashman has to like his club's chances of matching up well with the Angels and progressing to what would be New York's first World Series appearance since 2003, when the Marlins won the title in six games.
"I think this team is one of our better teams we've had in a while," Cashman said. "I also think Anaheim is running out a much-improved team, too. Clearly, they were able to beat Boston, and they haven't been able to do that before.
"They're more equipped, and I think we're more equipped. It will be a great series for baseball fans, and we look forward to competing with them starting on Friday."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.