Thursday, November 5, 2009
Yankees thrived on not feeling pressure
Many of the 27 New York Yankees World Series-winning teams thrived on pressure. They relished being the sought-out team, the hated group, the huge favorite, the cadre of players envied by opposing teams' general managers.
The 2009 Yankees, a group made up of many players who had suffered through some, most or all of eight seasons of failed expectations, were not one of those teams.
They didn't play their best when they were tight, when the pressure was so immense that it choked them, slowed down their swings, took the "curve" out of their curveballs. Rather, this group of champions rolled to this championship by playing loosely, by acting as if they weren't the hunted, weren't the team everyone expected to be spraying the final bottles of Champagne.
Just look at Alex Rodriguez, who was infamous, entering this October, for not performing in the playoffs. If you look at the tape from past postseason failures -- take 2004, '05, '06 or '07 -- you'll see an uptight A-rod with a serious face. You'll see him strikeout and then walk back to the dugout, head down, almost as if he was hoping Yankees fans wouldn't boo him.
He was afraid of failure, scared of not living up to the gazillions of dollars the richest franchise in MLB invested in him.
Not anymore, sports fans. This season, the Yanks brought in Nick Swisher, who refuses to live without a smile. They also paid the big bucks for C.C. Sabathia, a big, pudgy, relaxed -- yet fierce -- pitcher who never lets the enormity of a situation get the best of him.
And, all of a sudden, A-rod changed.
Think back to spring training. It came out that Rodriguez had used PEDs while in Texas. He admitted to using them, and immediately lost all his Facebook friends. Then he suffered a bad hip injury that would keep him off the field -- the only place where he could redeem himself -- for over a month.
Things couldn't have been worse for the guy. (OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. Dating Kate Hudson and having a little money equals a serviceable life.) And there was no indication that his fortunes would turn around, especially coming off the torn labrum in his right hip.
But A-Rod came back to the diamond relaxed, sporting a new, always-smiling demeanor. I'm not sure where it came from, but I think Swisher, Sabathia and Co. deserve some credit. Whatever the case, A-Rod's fresh outlook helped him the most this postseason, when he was absolutely explosive in the first two rounds and then drilled the biggest hit of the series to win the crucial Game 4.
Take away A-Rod's postseason, and there's no way the Yanks are dancing all over the Unnecessary Stadium's green sod late Wednesday night. He, really, was the difference this October (and early November).
This isn't to say that other guys didn't play huge roles. Hideki Matsui provided the nail in the Fightin' Phils coffin, hitting everything Pedro Martinez threw at the plate in Game 6 to drive in a ridiculous six of the Yanks' seven runs. He also slugged the key (and game-winning) homer off, you guessed it, Pedro in Game 2 -- on a pitch, it must be mentioned, that was just higher than the top of the Vlad Guerrero hitting zone.
Mariano Rivera was stellar -- what's new? -- in shutting down the Phillies whenever provided with a late-inning lead. If I didn't know the guy to be classy and honest (and I'm absolutely positive on this), I'd think he's ingesting something illegal the way he's pitching at age 39. Joe Girardi used him so many innings, I mistook Rivera for a 26-year-old closer.
And fellow veterans Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon and Jorge Posada contributed as well, with Damon's heads-up baserunning in the ninth inning of Game 4 something that will certainly be recalled when looking back on this Series.
But did we expect anything different from these guys? After all, they've never been the problem for the Yankees in the Postseason (at least not while in Pinstripes; Damon had a big hand in the Red Sox' Comeback for the Ages in '04, hitting the grand slam that sparked the Sox in Game 7).
So what if Jeter got on base in every game of the postseason? Is that really surprising? No, that's what the guy does.
No, what put these Yankees over the top, what allowed them to finally get back to the pinnacle of baseball greatness, were the contributions of the New Guys and, of course, what the new A-Rod did.
Yes, New York did what it always does during the cold months, madly outspending the rest of the league to acquire the big names. But that wouldn't have mattered if Rodriguez had swung through pitches, again, in the postseason.
Instead, he relaxed, his teammates stayed chill, they blew some big bubbles, Swisher kept smiling -- even when benched briefly -- and they calmly rolled to the Yanks' 27th title.