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Pettitte, Sabathia give Yankees margin for error

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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NEW YORK

The Yankees quietly put away the champagne that'd been prepped to turn the visitors' clubhouse into a lake Thursday night. Instead of a post-pennant party, the Bombers took a red-eye flight home, grabbed a few hours' sleep and sprinkled in some amnesia to whisk away the memory of Game 5 of the AL Championship Series. Suddenly, this much anticipated war between the American League's two best teams has turned into just that — a fight to the finish, thanks to the Angels' stirring 7-6 victory that was as dramatic as it was maddening to both sides. The Angels took an early, commanding lead on A.J. Burnett and blew it. The Yankees blitzed the Angels with a six-run rally in the seventh — cloning their 51 come-from-behind victories during the regular season. But just nine outs away from the World Series, the Bombers wasted their chance, allowing the Angels to score three decisive runs. So it's down to a final weekend in the Bronx, where the Yankees will have two chances to win one game. They like the odds, especially with CC Sabathia acting as the ultimate safety net in Game 7. Still, the Yankees were forced to admit the Angels had caught them by surprise, victims of an 11th-hour ambush no one saw coming. "Any time you have a chance to close out a series and you don't win, no matter what the score is, it's a missed opportunity," said Joe Girardi, who'll now rely on his last three bullets to finish off the Angels. The first is Andy Pettitte, the Game 6 starter who's thrown 218.1 career innings in the postseason. No Yankee can match Pettitte's track record and winning pedigree; no Yankee is less likely to suffer an emotional meltdown in a win-or-else climate. Bullet No. 2 is Sabathia, who, if necessary, would take the mound on full rest in Game 7 on Sunday. So far, he's proven to be the Yankees' most valuable asset; the Angels haven't come close to wounding him. In two starts in this series, Sabathia has limited the Angels to two earned runs in 16 innings (1.13 ERA), striking out 12 while allowed just nine hits. The specter of facing Sabathia in a nine-inning shootout is hardly appetizing to the Angels. If they couldn't get to the Yankees' ace on three days' rest in Game 4, how will Game 7 be any easier? But Anaheim is hoping the Yankees were sufficiently rattled at their Game 5 loss to effectively level the playing field for the rest of the series. The Angels want the Yankees to step onto the field on Saturday thinking: How did we manage to get back here? But the Stadium is actually Girardi's third weapon — the $1.6 billion structure that emboldened the Yankees and intimidated opposing teams. No team had a better home record in 2009, in part because the park was a breeding ground for right-field home runs. The fans also played a role in the Yankees' success, growing louder and more intimidating as the season progressed. By the time the playoffs rolled around, opposing teams seemed to wilt; the Twins were no match for sellout crowds during the Division Series, and the Angels seemed unnerved in Games 1 and 2 for the very same reason. The Bronx wasn't just cold last week, it was angry, loud, rude, as un-PC as any venue in baseball. "Their fans are tough, they really know the game of baseball. You know the Yankees are tough," Torii Hunter was saying after Game 5. "But we're still going to go out there and grind us a baseball game. We're going to have some fun and play the game we know how to play." Hunter went on to make a compelling point about the Angels' long odds. "The pressure's not on us, definitely," he said. That assertion is backed by the Angels' 48-33 record on the road, the best in the American League. They're bringing all that muscle memory into Game 6, along with the knowledge that they got to A.J. Burnett when they had to, broke the back of the Yankee bullpen, and withstood the challenge of a bases-loaded, two-out rally in the ninth. Those are the reasons the Angels think they can pull off this miracle. If the Yankees believe in Pettitte, the Western Division champs have just as much faith in Joe Saunders, who allowed only two runs in seven innings in Game 2. Mike Scioscia thinks Hunter, Guerrero and Kendry Morales and the rest of his lineup, which had totaled just 10 runs in the first four games, is ready to explode now. He thinks the Angels are in Phil Hughes' head, and he couldn't help but notice that Girardi waited until after the damage was done in the seventh inning to summon Joba Chamberlain, who's been dramatically devalued during this season. In fact, the Yankees' bullpen alignment looks fuzzier than it's been in months. Who, exactly, does Girardi trust in the seventh inning? The fact that he sent Burnett back to the mound after the Yankees had taken a 6-4 lead in the top of the seventh provided the answer — no one. Right now, the Yankees' only sure thing is Mariano Rivera. Together, he and Sabathia might have to carry the Bombers on their backs to the World Series, assuming Alex Rodriguez can sustain his October hot streak. Logic says the Yankees should have enough firepower to win one game this weekend. They've got almost everything in their favor — except for the memory of Game 5 that got away. In this case, a little amnesia might help.
Tagged: Angels, Twins, Yankees, CC Sabathia, Torii Hunter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett, Kendrys Morales, Joe Saunders, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain

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