They dashed from the dugout and in from the outfield, swarming Alex Rodriguez in a sea of pinstripes only steps from his spot at third base.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” he said. “I feel like a 10-year-old kid.”
Making it to the World Series for the first time after all those misses will do that to you.
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The New York Yankees, baseball’s biggest spenders, finally cashed in with their first pennant in six years Sunday night, beating the Los Angeles Angels 5-2 in Game 6 of the AL championship series behind the savvy pitching of that old October pro, Andy Pettitte.
Next up, New York hosts defending champion Philadelphia in the World Series opener Wednesday night. Cliff Lee is expected to face ALCS MVP CC Sabathia in an enticing pitching matchup between former Cleveland teammates – and the past two AL Cy Young Award winners.
Ridiculed in the past for his October flops, the three-time MVP played a huge role in helping his team advance through the playoffs, batting .438 with five home runs and 12 RBIs. Thriving under late-inning pressure this time around, the slugger earned his first trip to the Fall Classic during a 16-year career in which he’s accomplished almost everything else.
“That’s what you play for,” Rodriguez said. “In order to win a World Series, you have to get there first.”
Cameras flashed in the stands throughout the ninth inning as the crowd roared louder and louder with each pitch.
After Mariano Rivera fanned pinch-hitter Gary Matthews Jr. for the final out at 1 minute past midnight, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and most Yankees rushed to mob a jubilant Rodriguez near third base.
Rivera received a huge hug from catcher Jorge Posada in front of the mound. Then, Rodriguez and the Yankees partied with beer and bubbly in their swanky, high-tech clubhouse.
“I feared that I wouldn’t be able to contribute, so I had a lot of limitations,” Rodriguez said about his previous playoff failures. “The whole year for me was about trusting my teammates and being one of the guys.”
Pettitte set a postseason record for wins, Johnny Damon hit a two-run single and Rivera closed it out in familiar fashion with a six-out save as the $201 million Yankees won their 40th American League crown by vanquishing the Angels, a longtime nemesis.
“It’s really not a surprise that we are here. I hate to sound like that,” said Sabathia, signed along with fellow free agents Teixeira and A.J. Burnett in a $423.5 million offseason spending spree.
Now, the Yankees go for their record 27th title – when manager Joe Girardi was hired two years ago, he took jersey No. 27 with that in mind.
Not a bad way for Jeter, Posada and crew to finish up the first season at the team’s new $1.5 billion ballpark. As Yankee Stadium grew dark, Sabathia’s and Girardi’s kids ran around the bases on an empty infield.
“We want to enjoy this tonight. We’ll worry about Philly tomorrow,” Jeter said. “Hopefully, we can play one more great series.”
For manager Mike Scioscia and his sloppy Angels, it was their latest playoff failure during a decade of steady regular-season success. Since winning their only championship in 2002, the Angels are yet to return to the World Series despite five AL West titles in the past six years.
“At times we played good baseball. At times we shot ourselves in the foot,” Scioscia said.
After rain postponed Game 6 for a day, the clear weather and mild, 58-degree temperature at first pitch was a stark change from the first two games of the series, when the Angels froze up in the raw chill at Yankee Stadium.
Pettitte escaped a jam in the sixth, going to 3-0 on Kendry Morales before knocking down a comebacker with runners at second and third to preserve a 3-1 edge. The left-hander pumped his fist, then headed for the dugout.
With one on and one out in the seventh, Pettitte left to a standing ovation and tipped his cap to the sellout crowd of 50,173, the largest at the new ballpark. He earned his 16th postseason win, breaking a tie with John Smoltz, and his fifth to close out a postseason series – also a major league record.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in Andy when he’s on the mound. He’s been a big-game pitcher for us for 14 years,” Jeter said.
Joba Chamberlain got two key outs and Girardi went to a well-rested Rivera in the eighth. He gave up a two-out RBI single to Vladimir Guerrero, making it 3-2, then retired Morales to end the inning.
A diving play by Teixeira at first base helped Rivera avoid further damage.
It was the first earned run allowed at home by the 39-year-old Rivera in a postseason save situation. But the Yankees added two insurance runs in the eighth on a pair of Angels errors and Teixeira’s sacrifice fly.
Rivera finished up for his record 37th postseason save, and the Yankees had their elusive pennant.
“You bring him in, you feel like the game’s over. He’s the best,” Pettitte said.
Rodriguez reached base all five times up and drew a bases-loaded walk in the fourth that put New York ahead 3-1. Earlier in the inning, Damon gave the Yankees the lead with a single off 16-game winner Joe Saunders.
Including their unprecedented collapse against Boston in 2004, the Yankees had lost five straight times with a chance to close out an ALCS – and six in a row with an opportunity to end a playoff series.
But this time, New York got it done with leadership from Jeter, Pettitte, Rivera and Posada, all part of the late 1990s dynasty under manager Joe Torre.
As for Rodriguez, his tumultuous year began with a tense news conference to admit steroids use from 2001-03 with Texas, then hip surgery that sidelined him until May.
It will end in the World Series.
“Pretty incredible, especially with all the stuff I’ve been through this year,” he said. “I just felt very happy and very blessed, and all I cared about this year was winning games.”
Normally airtight on defense and fundamentals, the Angels made eight errors in the series and several other uncharacteristic mistakes. The miscues continued early in the clincher, when Saunders walked five in 3 1-3 shaky innings and Guerrero was doubled off first base on a shallow fly.
With no Rally Monkey bouncing around the video board in the Bronx, Los Angeles failed to pull off one of its signature comebacks. The Angels trailed in all eight of their playoff victories against New York, including a stirring 7-6 triumph in Game 5 on Thursday night that extended the series.
Looking to lock up the pennant, the Yankees turned to a familiar source of success in Pettitte. The 37-year-old left-hander delivered, allowing only one run for his second closeout win of these playoffs. He also beat Minnesota to complete a first-round sweep.
Always a picture of poise and focus in October, narrowed eyes peering between his cap and glove as he takes his signs on the mound, Pettitte also owns postseason records with 38 starts and 237 1-3 innings pitched.
Pettitte was pitching at home for the Yankees in the postseason for the first time since their last World Series game, a 2-0 loss to Josh Beckett and the Florida Marlins in 2003.
This one was a different story.
“They beat us fair and square,” Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. “It’s just frustrating right now.”
NOTES: The Phillies won two of three at Yankee Stadium in May. … Rodriguez has hit in 11 straight postseason games. … The Yankees are 5-0 at home this postseason.