The Yankees were tested in the American League Division Series, by the Baltimore Orioles and by their own shortcomings. They won, anyway. In the Bronx, in October, that is what matters most.
When the Yankees vanquished the Orioles — finally — with a 3-1 victory in Game 5 Friday night, it didn’t feel like a display of their full organizational might. The win was not overwhelming, in a way that made you believe in the inevitability of a 28th world championship.
Game 5 was about a team — from manager Joe Girardi to the demoted Alex Rodriguez — understanding, transcending and maybe even embracing its imperfections.
These aren’t the 2009 world champions, with multiple in-their-prime stars capable of carrying the team. The average age on that team was 29 years and 207 days — only the 10th-oldest in the majors, according to STATS LLC.
The current group is downright geriatric — an average of 31 years and 154 days, the eldest in the big leagues. These Yankees don’t have a true AL MVP candidate to anchor the lineup, but rather a collection of veterans called “wily” when they win and “old” when they lose. The batting order requires daily massaging, as Girardi made apparent Friday with the boldest Yankees benching since Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson 35 years ago.
For the record: It worked. The 2012 Yankees are 1-0 in the postseason without A-Rod in the starting lineup.
Now they are in baseball’s Final Four. They have home-field advantage against the Tigers in the AL Championship Series. They are talented enough to win it all. More importantly, they profess a quiet belief that they will.
“We had to fight harder this year,” first baseman Mark Teixeira acknowledged. “Two of the first three years I was here, we handily won the division (and) didn’t have to fight as hard. I think (this year) brought the best out of us. This may not be the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here, but I’ll put our character and our fight up there with any team I’ve been on.
“We had a lot of injuries. We’re not getting any younger. I’m not getting any younger, I know that. You have to keep battling. Baseball’s not easy. You’ve got a lot of young teams coming up with some amazing talent. There’s probably more young talent in the game now than I’ve ever seen.
“The old guys can still go out there and win a few games.”
Apparently so. The old guys in pinstripes looked rather spry in Game 5: Raul Ibañez, 40, drove in the Yankees’ first run. Ichiro Suzuki, 38, brought home the second. Derek Jeter, 38, nimbly made the defensive play of the game — a sprinting scoop of J.J. Hardy’s slow roller to end the Baltimore eighth with the bases loaded.
But the most surprisingly athletic move of them all belonged to the 32-year-old Teixeira. He singled to lead off the fifth inning in a scoreless tie but was an unlikely threat to run, after missing nearly all of September with a badly strained left calf. Orioles manager Buck Showalter thought so little of the possibility that Mark Reynolds didn’t bother to hold Teixeira at first base. Showalter wasn’t alone. During the TBS telecast, analyst John Smoltz noted the Orioles were showing “no fear” Teixeira would try to steal.
On the 1-0 pitch, Teixeira took a walking lead — and dashed for second. He slid in safely, stunning the crowd of 47,081 and a bemused Ibañez in the batter’s box.
This was Teixeira’s 36th career postseason game — and his first career postseason stolen base.
“I knew it was a possibility,” said Teixeira, whose last stolen base, period, came more than three months ago. “They were playing behind me all series, but the first few games, my calf just wasn’t good enough to run. Today, we didn’t have anything going. I knew I needed to get in scoring position, try to spark the team.”
He did. Six pitches later, Ibañez dribbled a ground ball through the right side. The Yankees took a 1-0 lead — and never trailed again.
The Yankees triumphed despite collecting only five hits in the series finale. Even with bonus swings in two extra-inning games, the Yankees averaged only 3.20 runs per game in the ALDS. Over the five world championships of the Jeter Era, the Yankees averaged 4.07, 4.77, 4.83, 4.31 and 5.33 runs per postseason game, according to STATS LLC. Clearly, the 2012 Yankees don’t have that kind of offense. But maybe they won’t need it, thanks to a pitching staff that compiled a 1.76 ERA over the five games against Baltimore.
"There’s not that one guy where you say, ‘OK, if we get this guy out, we can be successful against (the Yankees),’” said Curtis Granderson, whose seventh-inning homer redeemed what had been a disappointing ALDS. “It’s been hero after hero after hero — different guy, different guy, different guy. That’s the reason we were able to advance.”
Now, a word on A-Rod. He is, in many ways, an avatar for the team. He’s not as young or as good as he used to be. But he’s not as lousy as he showed in the ALDS. That’s just not possible. He has looked overmatched against right-handed pitching, so Girardi made an entirely sensible adjustment with Jason Hammel on the mound in Game 5: He chose two left-handers over him — Ibañez and Eric Chavez — and would be justified in doing so against Detroit’s all-righty rotation.
After risking injury to A-Rod’s pride by benching him once, why not do it again? Following the initial shock of Friday’s move, the subsequent ego bruises won’t be quite as painful. A-Rod has a future as a complementary player for the Yankees, albeit an overpaid one. His postseason may be unsalvageable, at least against righties. But that’s OK. Friday, the Yankees proved again that they can invent ways to win without him.