Postseason is Yankees' prime time to shine

October 02, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - October dawned yesterday with its customary simplicity:

The World Series is the New York Yankees' to lose.

Why else did TV schedule the Yankees for prime time, again, forcing the reigning World Series champion Diamondbacks to an 11 p.m. East Coast start time?

What else, then, was the point of that first-inning homer by Derek Jeter to post the Yankees an instant lead in Game 1 of this American League Division Series against the Anaheim Angels?

And, of course, why else did Jason Giambi - brought here specifically to put the Yankees back on top in a big way - crush the kind of two-run homer that could make him heir to that beloved Yankees phrase: Mr. October?

"They say we have an advantage because, first of all, we're playing in Yankee Stadium, we have the experience of postseason play," manager Joe Torre said.

In Yankees lore - and Lord knows there's enough of it to choke on - October opponents are said to come quaking, knock-kneed, into The House That Ruth Built.

Give us your hungry, your tired, your poor?

That's what it says on the Statue of Liberty, where strangers from foreign lands are greeted with kindness and warmth.

Up here in this slightly less hospitable New York landmark, the Yankees stand at the gate, drooling at the sight of postseason neophytes.

On the Statue of Jeter, which will be implanted one day in Monument Park, next to Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and DiMaggio, it would definitely say something entirely different:

"Give us your chicken-hearted, your awed, your overmatched."

This is, after all, the place where, last year in the World Series against the Diamondbacks, a couple of Yankees diehards unfurled a banner. It read:

Appearing Nightly, Aura and Mystique.

It can get to you. Ask the San Diego Padres.

No one will ever forget how, in 1998, the Padres showed up at Yankee Stadium for their World Series appearance like a baseball version of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Guys like Tony Gwynn, video recorders in tow, traipsed reverently out to center field to visit sacred ground, where the ghosts of all those Yankees legends seemed to spook the Padres into flat-liner submission.

Yankees won world championship No. 24 in four.

Hopefully, Gwynn has some nice footage to remember this place by.

Now it is the Angels' turn.

They are a spunky lot, staying on pace with the torrid Oakland Athletics this season and bypassing the Seattle Mariners to make the AL West home to three 90-game winning teams.

The Yankees, postseason businessmen that they are, paid proper lip service to their concerns over the Angels' strengths.

"Always in the postseason, your concerns are on leadoff guys. I just say, `No walks, get [David] Eckstein and [Darin] Erstad,' because they get on base and you have problems," Andy Pettitte said.

Last night, the pesky Erstad did scamper from first to third on a steal and an error in the third inning before scoring on Tim Salmon's single.

And later, in the fifth inning with Roger Clemens huffing and puffing through a high pitch count, the aggressive, small-ball Angels chopped their way back into the game.

However, in the big picture, it seems that maybe Pettitte did not read the Angels' postseason media guide, where it says "2002 marks the Angels' fourth postseason appearance, first since 1986."

Relying on some admittedly shaky math skills, this means 16 years have passed since the Halos sniffed the rare air of October.

Actually, it's more foreboding than that.

In 1995, after coughing up the 13-game lead they held over the Mariners in late August, the Angels recorded one of the worst chokes in baseball history.

They settled for a rare, one-game playoff against the Mariners in October, but it was an embarrassingly futile attempt to reclaim the AL West title - one that left Angels ace Mark Langston splayed in the dirt as Seattle won handily, changing the course of history for that franchise and dooming the Angels to further demoralization.

To their credit, the Angels have bravely attempted to downplay the eye-popping disparity in postseason experience between themselves and the Yankees. There have been no known analogies to "David and Goliath" or quips about being thrown to the lions.

"As soon as that pitch is thrown, I think they have postseason experience," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said last night.

"The system of routine alleviates a lot of that pressure in this situation. We're doing the same things we've done since spring training. Once that first pitch is thrown, those butterflies disappear."

But it's not as if the Angels can ignore the numbers. The Yankees have a collective total of 465 postseason games notched on their belts.

On the roster for this Division Series, there is exactly one Angels player with postseason experience.

Kevin Appier has pitched two games in October, a feat that somehow qualifies him as the wise, old sage for these upstart Angels.

"Obviously, you know, we've been talking for the last month or so. Younger kids are just asking various questions. They've been good about picking my brain," said Appier, who added that the biggest question was:

"Stuff like, `How hard is it to, you know, not get the jitters?'"

Appier's advice?

"Just told them not to stress out about it."

Sounds as good as anything.

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