The Baltimore Orioles are nipping at their heels and the Los Angeles Angels are charging hard in the wild card standings to make a run at both of the top AL East squads. The Oakland Athletics keep cruising along.
The New York Yankees are taking it all in stride because they have what most teams lack—championship experience on their side.
Past performance is not a guarantee of present or future success, but it’s definitely a bonus—one which has helped the Yankees for the past decade. A Major League Baseball season is 162 games, not 140 and not 150. The Yankees are a veteran-laden, battle-tested ball club that knows what it takes to win down the stretch.
There’s reason to believe in the Bronx as the Yankees look to be gaining momentum at the right time. The Yankees are 7-3 over their last 10 games and 40% of their starting rotation has now come back in the last five days. Ivan Nova dazzled over six and one-third innings last September earning the victory over Tampa Bay.
Today, Andy Pettitte returned to a very familiar place, the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium, and threw five scoreless innings to earn the victory in the first game of the doubleheader. Having Pettitte back in the starting rotation is enormous for New York.
Even Brett Gardner may be back in limited duty as a pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement in left field.
The Yankees leadership starts with their ultimate champions, the captain Derek Jeter, the great Mariano Rivera and Pettitte. Rivera has played the role of mentor and counselor this season to now-Yankees closer, Rafael Soriano, as well as the whole team, serving as a calming, confidence-building inspiration.
It may not seem the case, but this is already manager Joe Girardi’s fifth season at the helm of the Bronx Bombers and Girardi has the championship ring and grey hairs that show his fighting spirit and resolve.
For all of the talk about how the Yankees would fade and be overtaken by a younger, livelier, more athletic team, the Bombers are still atop the division in first place and intend on staying there.
Mark Teixeira may be back just in time for the start of the playoffs to add a boost to the lineup, particularly against left-handed pitching. Opposing southpaws have been the Achilles heel for this Yankee squad, largely since the Bombers’ right-handed bats—with the exception of Rodriguez and Jeter—simply haven’t performed well over much of the second half of the season.
Tantalizing as they may be at times, particularly while hitting with runners in scoring position, the Yankees haven’t left their perch atop first place in months. They’re not going anywhere. That’s not the way a team with championship pedigree and intense determination goes out.
These Yankees will fight until the end. As far as their veterans will carry them.
The fact is, the Yankees veteran leadership has already shown itself, even as their now famous 10-game lead has evaporated since mid-July. Not many other teams in baseball were able to build out such a wide lead to begin with. When you consider the Yankees’ injuries, it hasn’t been that bad of a year.
Alex Rodriguez has been fond of pointing out—over the past two weeks—that the Yankees are playing games with a playoff atmosphere now. In effect, these are playoff games because every game counts toward determining who makes the postseason and who gets left out.
This rough stretch and uber-competitive month of September should only bode well for the Yankees. What better group of players to handle it than those who have been there and done that many times before?
Yankee captain Derek Jeter certainly hasn’t backed away from the challenge. If each Yankee fan had a dime for every time a member of the media counted out the 38-year old future Hall of Famer over the past couple of seasons, maybe they could collaboratively go in on purchasing the Yankees from the Steinbrenner family.
Jeter’s veteran leadership and calm demeanor during the struggles of August and early September cannot be taken for granted or unappreciated. Jeter, along with optimistic veterans like Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Russell Martin have helped hold this team together and persevere.
For some perspective, look at how the Boston Red Sox fell apart this season without good leadership in their clubhouse. In fact, things were so miserable that the Sox traded away two of their biggest stars, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez, for reasons that certainly had to do with poor leadership.
The intangibles of leadership, team-building, confidence and perseverance are most often underestimated in our stat-crazed society largely because they’re intangible and cannot be quantified into cause-and-effect tangible numbers.
It's imperative not to dismiss them entirely because doing so would undermine how much players like Jeter, Pettitte and great Yankees of the past like Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill mean to a baseball team. Those are the players who make up the difference between winning and losing.
In addition to many long-time Yankees, it's been a comforting feeling to look down the dugout and see the team’s midseason addition of Ichiro Suzuki—another future Hall of Famer and player who has stepped up his game when the going has gotten tough.
The Yankees have the benefit of having played on the biggest stage in baseball before and, in knowing that a little distress and pressure is hardly reason for panic. Can Baltimore honestly say the same thing? How about the Washington Nationals? Time will tell.
Ask the 2008 New York Yankees what it felt like to lose the manager that led them to the postseason in all twelve years he managed in the Bronx. Ask the St. Louis Cardinals in a few weeks—if they’re on the outside looking in—how big of a difference a veteran manager can make in guiding a baseball team through a full season.
And exactly two weeks from today, it will be interesting to see what many Yankee players have to say when the Bombers likely will enter their 17th postseason in 18 years. Most likely, you'll hear them talk about the veteran leadership, cool and poise that this team constantly exudes.
It makes all the difference.