One after another, the home runs kept flying out of Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night. Baseballs, flying through the sky, taking the form of celebratory fireworks for a New York Yankees team well on its way to another AL East division title and its 17th postseason berth in 18 years. Dominance.
And you thought the Yankees weren't going to win the division.
As Derek Jeter and Co. so fondly remind us, it's a long season. Over the course of 162 games, competitors come and go, but during this epic run that Jeter has continuously been a part of, the Yankees have stood tall at the end of the regular season every year but one. They've worn the crown five times at the end of October.
In order to be king yet again, the question the Yankees must be asking themselves is, how we do we keep this offensive momentum going? Rest assured that the Yankees will not play the lowly Boston Red Sox come Sunday, as bottom feeders like Boston are long gone now. So is the team's manager.
The Yankees' first-round opponent will be the Baltimore Orioles or Texas Rangers—in other words, a team that can flat-out mash and especially has a penchant for hammering balls out of the park. Just like the Yankees.
Though, neither Baltimore or Texas have a dominant pitching staff, which has to make the Yankees optimistic about the ALDS.
Even in a short series, the team with the superior pitching staff usually advances, which is why many are so fond of saying, "Pitching wins championships." However, the Yankees' Achilles' heel over the last two postseason disappointments has been their inability to score runs. More specifically, their inability to hit with runners in scoring position (RISP).
In the crucial Game 5 against the Detroit Tigers last season, which the Yankees lost in excruciating fashion, New York was a woeful 2-for-9 hitting with RISP. In Game 2, the Yankees were 0-for-7 with RISP. In their 5-4 loss in Game 3 of that series, the Yankees were 0-for-5.
Guess what the Yankees didn't do a very good job of this season?
The Yankees finished 17th in the majors hitting with RISP. It's confounding, baffling and downright poor when you consider the team led the majors in home runs and OPS, finished second in runs scored and hit .265 on the season—good enough for seventh in MLB.
As hot as the Yankees were at the end with the bats, a Tuesday night dramatic walk-off, 12-inning victory nearly could have been a disaster. The Yankees were saved by a Raul Ibanez two-run homer that may have played as big of a role as any Yankees hit all season in securing the division title.
A closer look shows the Yankees' repeated failures in the early innings to convert baserunners into runs scored. Mark Teixeira hit into two double plays in the early innings with men on first and third base. The Yankees had a chance to win it in the ninth—one out with the bases loaded—and couldn't come through.
So don't fault Yankee fans for feeling like they've maybe seen this movie before. For a team that hit so poorly in big spots with men on base, it shouldn't be surprising to anyone if that carries over into the playoffs.
In fact, mark it down: The Yankees' fate this postseason will be determined by their ability to come through with big hits when men are on base.
For all of that RISP talk, this Yankees team can sure hit home runs. In fact, the 2012 Yankees hit the most home runs of any pinstripe-clad squad in history. And when the Bronx Bombers start bashing, it's usually lights out for the opponent.
Along with solid starting pitching, the Yankees' prodigious home run power will be a huge piece to the puzzle of how the Bombers get back to the top of the baseball mountain. If the Yankees can consistently hit home runs, they should be in good shape. They do have a track record of doing so.
One thing that may change the Yankees' fate somewhat is continuing to bat Ichiro near the top of the lineup. The future Hall of Famer has added a unique dimension to the second spot in the Yankees lineup, and he may be best suited to remain there.
Remember, manager Joe Girardi is much more of a "small ball" manager by nature and very often in the playoffs, the small-ball mindset—usually attributed to National League teams—pays dividends. Furthermore, adding a speedster like Eduardo Nunez against left-handed pitchers helps contribute to a more nimble and agile Yankee squad.
It would be foolhardy to rely on the big bats to do those little things, as they're so often looking for the big blow. Players like Teixeira and Nick Swisher haven't had the track record in big October games to suggest that they're reliable. Should that be dismissed, given that this is a new year? Or is it a real fear?
Curtis Granderson finished in grand fashion, pounding out two home runs on Wednesday night and finishing just one long ball off the major league lead—a truly incredible accomplishment. Yet Granderson's proclivity for striking out—or more importantly, not putting the ball in play—could really hurt the Yankees.
The fact remains, in a short series, absolutely anything is possible.
There's reason to believe the Yankees will crush several balls out of the yard to their advantage. And there's reason to believe their fantastic ability to get men on base may result in their demonstrated ineptitude to drive those men home.
Starting Sunday, the Yankees will send three pitchers to the mound that they should have exceedingly high confidence in—CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda. All three can get batters to put the ball on the ground, and all three had high strikeout rates in 2012.
The Yankees have to believe that their late-season momentum will continue and that all of their players will dig deep to shake off any past October blues in order to elevate this team into the ALCS for the first time since 2010. The long ball is the Yankees' best friend, but that alone likely will not cut it.
This team may be looking at its last great run for several years. The Bombers are only getting older, but they're hot at a darn good time—the best of times in fact.
With the addition of Ichiro and the resurgent Derek Jeter and red-hot Robinson Cano, the offense is capable of bashing the Yankees right back into the World Series.