Wily Yankees still the team to fear

So what is it about the Yankees that makes opposing teams vaporize in the late innings?

It happened to the Twins in the Division Series, and incredibly, repeated itself in Game 1 of the ALCS Friday night.

The Rangers got a whiff of a Yankees comeback in the eighth inning and, just like that, allowed themselves to be folded, spindled and mutilated en route to the Bombers’ 6-5 victory.

The Series isn’t over, at least not by the numbers, but the Yankees nevertheless inflicted a major psychological wound on the Rangers. In the span of one inning, the Bombers stripped the Western Division champs of all the we-own-the-world euphoria they’d copped after breaking the Rays’ hearts in the ALDS.

Texas was close to doing it to the Yankees, too. Or at least they thought so. The Rangers crept to within six outs of an upset so huge, it’s likely CC Sabathia, knocked after just four innings, would’ve been rushed back in Game 4 on three days’ rest.

Talk about doomsday scenarios: Sabathia gets worked over in Game 1, followed by Phil Hughes making his first-ever postseason start on the road. The best the Yankees can do is split on the road, knowing they’re about to run face-first into Cliff Lee in Game 3. Then comes ….. A.J. Burnett?

No chance, not if the Yankees were down 3-0 or even 2-1.

But none on those choices ever appeared on the menu, because the Yankees scored five runs in the eighth inning, flattening the Rangers’ bullpen like Sherman’s scorched earth campaign in the Civil War. The Bombers batted around, getting run-scoring hits from Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Marcus Thames.

By the time the ambush was over, the crowd at Rangers Ballpark was beaten down into a stunned silence. Even the last-minute rally against Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning turned out to be just a sadistic tease. With the tying run on second base and one out, Rivera struck out Michael Young and got Josh Hamilton to bounce out to A-Rod to end the game.

The Yankees quietly congratulated each other, but there wasn’t much in the way of postgame celebration. The clubhouse had a distinct been there-done that vibe to it, almost as if the Bombers had played rope a dope for seven innings, duping the Rangers into believing they had half a chance.

“When you face a team like the Yankees, you’ve got to execute,” is how manager Ron Washington put it. The answer needed no further explanation.

The Bombers, of course, are the defending world champs, flawed in some ways, but armed with a psychological armor that borders on impenetrable.

A-Rod wasn’t kidding when he said, “the last six or nine outs are the toughest ones to get. Until the final out is recorded against us, we always feel like we’re going to win.”

The Yankees broadcast that belief without chest-beating in the tabloids. They’re not wired that way. And forget about getting Joe Girardi to admit he’s sitting on a perfect killing machine. No point in waiting for that, either.

But the truth is, most every team is afraid of the depth of the Yankees’ lineup. “We’ve got the most talent,” is how GM Brian Cashman put it. That’s why an ALCS against the Rays would’ve been so compelling: they’re one of two teams who aren’t (or weren’t) intimidated by he Bombers, having beaten them 10 of 18 times this summer.

The other comparable force is the Phillies, who figure to meet the Yankees in a collision of dynasties. There’s no mistaking the sense of inevitability of this coming World Series.

But it’s not just the Phillies’ great pitching that makes them a threat to the Bombers, it’s their unshakable belief that this is their destiny, their year.

They’ve been gunning for the Yankees ever since the last out of Game Six in the ’09 Fall Classic.

But first things first. The Yankees are counting on Hughes to stay calm and composed in front of 50,000 non-friendlies. And the Bombers themselves have to believe Sabathia’s meltdown was an aberration — just an accumulation of rust that put him in a 3-0 hole before he’d gotten his first out.

That’s a plausible theory, considering Sabathia’s last start was nine days ago. Still, it was alternate universe stuff watching the ace bounce pitches in the dirt, hang curveballs, get lit up by Josh Hamilton for a three-run HR in the first inning.

Sabathia looked miserable pitching out of the stretch. Worse, he looked shaken. The big man says, “I’ll be fine” by Game 5 (or even 4 if necessary), but anyone who needs a reason to raise an eyebrow in Sabathia’s direction will note he’s made two bad starts in a row in the playoffs.

Question is, do the Yankees really think Sabathia will collapse in front of a home crowd on Tuesday or Wednesday? Not a chance.

They’ve got some crazy confidence right now. They smell the fear coming off the Rangers, the same scent the Twins gave off a week ago. No one’s admitting to it, but the Yankees already have images of the Phillies dancing in their heads.