It doesn't always take a historical, dramatic baseball game to clue a fanbase in on something special happening with their team.
In the later years of the Joe Torre era, with the bullpen in shambles and the starting rotation often in flux, the uneasy feeling that no lead was safe ran through every regular season game. And in the playoffs, it got worse. Watching close games in the later innings became one Bad Feeling About This after another, until the ax fell.
The lack of a shut-down arm in the bullpen to set up Rivera was only part of the problem. The other half stemmed from the lack of a killer instinct on offense—the ability to get the big single with men on base, for want of a home run.
The Yankee teams from 2004-2007 struggled with this constantly, and for the last two games of this ALCS it looked like the Yankees were going through a similar phase.
There are two faces—two brains, even—to this team. These two different mindsets have been at odds in a battle for the Yankees' soul since the beginning of 2004. One is the Derek Jeter Brain. The other is the Alex Rodriguez Brain.
The Derek Jeter Brain is cool as ice, content to hit the ball hard and low to the opposite field and let the next guy keep the line moving. Or, if we're talking about a pitcher, they challenge the opposition to beat them, and trust their defense to make plays when the ball gets hit. C.C. Sabathia is a Jeter-type. Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are like that, too - which is why the late-90s dynasty happened.
The Alex Rodriguez Brain feels the need to be the hero in every situation. This comes from a place of good intentions, not a selfish place, but in every big spot these guys grip their bats a little tighter, breathe a little heavier, and try to hit every pitch they see into outer space.
Or, for the pitchers, pitch away from contact and try to strike out every batter they face in a big spot. A lot of our guys seem to allow this feeling to creep into their subconscious in big spots. And the young guys, especially when they're going good, tend to start playing this kind of game too.
I wrote that in June, after the Red Sox swept us in Fenway to wipe out our first division lead of the season. The Two-Brains Theory has been a genuine concern of mine since the Yankees' meltdown at the end of 2004.
The Angels have had the Yankees' number over the past ten years because they are built to beat teams that play Home Run Derby baseball. They play good defense, hit their spots with their pitches, and find ways to grind down big deficits (and bullpens) until they can find a way to come all the way back. And they absolutely have the killer instinct.
The difference, we found out this afternoon, is that these Yankees are a completely different animal now.
CC Sabathia threw eight innings of one-run, four-hit ball—and only struck out five hitters. He was more than willing to pitch to contact and trust his stuff to elude the fat part of the Angels' bats, and it paid off. Aside from the Angels' one main threat in the fifth inning, Sabathia needed only 77 pitches to get through the other seven innings he threw.
On offense, the Yankees came out aggressive from the opening frame. Derek Jeter took off for second immediately after leading off with a single against Scott Kazmir - and got picked off. Alex Rodriguez led off the second with a walk, then stole second base - on Kazmir's first move.
That second steal sign was most likely the first time Joe Girardi surprised Mike Scioscia all series long.
Then came Melky Cabrera's leadoff push-bunt past the mound for an infield single to start the third inning (Scioscia had Erick Aybar try the same thing in the bottom half—and the Yankees were ready for it. Teixeira fielded it early and tagged Aybar out in the basepath).
In his next at-bat, leading off the fourth, Rodriguez drove a vicious line-drive single up the middle against Scott Kazmir. He would score the Yankees' first run by running hard on a play at the plate, beating out Howie Kendrick's throw home. The Yankees scored twice more in the inning and had another run overturned on an umpire's blown call on a tag-up.
It wouldn't matter; it was Alex's game now. After Mark Teixeira knocked Kazmir out in the top of the fifth with a single to left, the new and improved A-Rod took his playoff performance to the next level—the dagger he didn't put in Jered Weaver in Game Three went 400 feet into the hearts of the Angel fans in the left field bleachers.
Halfway through, the Yankees led 5-0, and Alex Rodriguez was looking suspiciously like Michael Jordan (except Jordan couldn't hit a breaking ball).
From then on, after Sabathia quieted the Rally Monkey for good in the bottom of the sixth, the last three innings were a mere formality.
And then the Yankee bats woke up.
A two-run homer from Johnny Damon on an Ervin Santana curveball in the eighth inning sent the message that challenging Damon with off-speed pitches inside was no longer a good idea.
Then came another monster hit from Rodriguez to lead off the ninth—a double into the left field gap—followed by A-Rod challenging Bobby Abreu's arm on a Posada flyout, and scoring when the ball flew off-target and into the stands.
Finally, Melky Cabrera, silent in the series until his bunt single, ripped a double into the right field corner to score two more runs—his third and fourth RBIs of the night.
It was a complete victory won by a complete team. And it was a statement to any and all comers—you cannot hold this team in check for long. They will out-pitch you, out-hit you, and if speed is your game, then they will out-hustle you, too.
Look for Burnett and company to drive that message home for good on Thursday night.