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Yankees not only better, but tougher than Halos

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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

It was more than October cold, this was crazy cold, NFL-cold, which had turned Games 1 and 2 of the AL Championship Series into a test of wills. The Yankees and Angels squared off not just to determine who had the better playoff team, but who had the superior survival skills. The verdict was returned a little after 1 a.m. ET, when A.J. Burnett layered Jerry Hairston's face with a celebration pie in front of the first-base dugout. A few thousand fans were still in the ballpark, but they let out a roar that told you everything about the state of the Yankees' universe today: They're halfway to a sweep of the Angels, having prevailed (again) in awful conditions, this time outlasting Anaheim, 4-3 in 13 innings. Joe Girardi spoke for the entire organization when he said, "I'm wiped out." He was smiling, but hardly kidding. The Yankees were on the verge of losing a 3-2 heartbreaker in the 11th, down to their last three outs against closer Brian Fuentes. A loss would've meant surrendering the home-field advantage in this series, and with the Angels reunited with the warm, Southern California sun, who knew how long the Yankees' run through the postseason would've lasted? But if the Bombers do, indeed, get to the World Series, they'll look back on the critical mistake Fuentes made after getting ahead of Alex Rodriguez, 0-2. The third baseman would later say, "he made two tough pitches on me, once he got to 0-2 he probably felt confident he could put me away." How many times have the Yankees seen it since the second half of the season — A-Rod crushing a middle-of-the-plate fastball as if it was late-night batting practice. His home run was more like a missile, a line drive that cleared the wall in right field, tying the game at 3-3. The Angels didn't know it at the time, but they'd taken their last breath. All week, it seemed, they've been looking for a fast exit to the airport and a return to a more normal clime. Who plays in weather like this, anyhow, is what the Angels' body language seemed to say. It started with the first-inning pop-up that dropped between Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar in Game 1, and ended when Maicer Izturis threw away what might've been Melky Cabrera's inning-ending double-play grounder in the 13th inning of Game 2. Instead, Izturis' throw sailed wildly past Aybar, allowing Jerry Hairston, who'd been on second, to round third and head for home. The Stadium crowd was on its feet, sensing a sea-change moment. But even then, the Angels might have wiggled free if they'd executed proper defense. Figgins picked up the ball near third base and appeared to have Hairston dead at the plate by five steps — if he'd actually made a throw. Instead, he dropped the ball, once and then twice, finally giving up as Hairston scored with the winning run. The Yankees mobbed Hairston at the plate, one-part exhalation, one-part exhaustion. Girardi had completely cleaned out his bullpen, and by the 13th inning turned to Derek Jeter and said, "I've run out of bullets. We need to score some runs."
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Of course, the Bombers are too polite and still too wary of the Angels to declare victory. And Mike Scioscia promised, "we can still turn things around" when the Series returns to Anaheim on Monday afternoon. Still the Yankees are doing to the Angels what they did to the Twins in the Division Series. They continue to win games in both the big and little ways, adding to their growing sense of inevitability. It's been exactly 11 years since the Yankees were on this kind of roll, but even the '98 team faced a crisis of sorts, finding itself down, 2-1 in the ALCS against the Indians. Orlando Hernandez ultimately crushed the Tribe, limiting them to three hits over seven innings in a 4-0 win. The Yankees won their next seven games, including a sweep of the Padres in the World Series. For now, the Bombers are keeping their horizon small, concentrating on Jered Weaver in Game 3, hoping Andy Pettitte can at least match him. Still, who could've predicted the Yankees would emerge from the opening rounds of this prizefight with such a distinct psychological advantage? Better question: who knew a Scioscia-led team, the only bunch that's dominated the Bombers since 2000, could come apart this easily. Maybe it was the 40-something temperatures, maybe it was the wind, or the loud, aggressive Yankee fans. The Angels seemed bothered by all of it, although they'll probably say the greatest weapon at Girardi's disposal has been A-Rod.
Talk about a rebirth. The slugger was 5-for-11 with six RBIs against the Twins, and now has two more RBIs against the Angels. Rodriguez repeated his oft-used answer to an oft-asked question — why is he so much more dangerous now than in past postseasons? — without boasting or even so much as a smile. "I know you guys are probably looking for something more profound, but I just decided to keep things simple," he said. "That's really all it is." If there's more to cracking the October code, A-Rod isn't saying. The Yankees themselves might not even know. But if Rodriguez hits, their entire profile is raised. C.C. Sabathia looks more untouchable, as he was in out-pitching John Lackey in Game 1, The defense plays better than the Angels'. And the war between the closers, Fuentes against Mariano Rivera, is a no-contest. Maybe the luck finally turns for the Angels now that they've escaped New York's arctic fall. But down 0-2 to baseball's most talented team, even the warm sun might not be enough to resuscitate the AL West champs. Bob Klapisch can be followed on Twitter.

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