Wild card feels sweet for Yanks this year

September 29, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

It is the final weekend of the regular season, and the New York Yankees are in a slightly unfamiliar position.

They're headed to the playoffs - as usual - but failed to win the American League East title for the first time since the Orioles went wire-to-wire in 1997, thanks to last night's loss and a victory by the Boston Red Sox.

So, why did Joe Torre look so relaxed entering a series that still had playoff implications? He has spent 12 seasons in the cauldron of outsized baseball expectations that is New York, so you'd think there would be pressure to try to squeeze a few more victories out of 2007 and angle the first-place Red Sox out of the division title. And you would be wrong.

Whatever happened at Camden Yards this weekend, the Yankees already had achieved their regular-season objective. That much should have been apparent when they broke out the champagne to celebrate their wild-card-clinching victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays three nights ago.

There was a time when reaching an interim goal would have elicited little more than a professional nod to the fact that the job was far from done. There was a time when the Yankees would have considered the wild-card race beneath them. Now, it smells like victory.

"Where we came from and were able to accomplish, it was easy for me to decide we really had to celebrate that," Torre said before yesterday's game. "Whatever happens from here on out, the important thing is preparing for the postseason."

Where they came from was a tie for last place in the AL East alongside the Devil Rays on May 29 - 14 1/2 games behind the division-leading Red Sox and (how soon we forget) three games behind the second-place Orioles.

They were so far down and so far back that it was pretty much assumed Torre's string of 11 consecutive playoff appearances was going to come to a screeching halt. That signature Yankee bravado had turned to a fatalism that even the manager concedes was creeping into the back of his mind.

The Yankees had started slowly a few other times during his tenure, and there were always early-season doubters who eventually became late-season believers, but Torre never seemed to sweat it. This was different.

"I know one thing," he said. "If we kept playing the way we were playing, it wasn't going to get better."

Of course, that's all in the rearview mirror now. The front office pushed some buttons and presumptive American League Most Valuable Player Alex Rodriguez continued to demoralize opposing pitchers, and it started to get better, little by little.

The manager did what he always does. He stayed calm. It looked bad, but it was only May.

"I just felt, if we could just keep the players from paying attention to how many games we were behind or how the Red Sox are playing ... and worry about cleaning our house," Torre said. "I think everything that has happened to us - and for us - we have learned from."

Still, it must seem odd to be in this position. The National League playoff picture is so scrambled that we might not know which four teams make the postseason until the middle of next week.

The Yankees arrived at Camden Yards with an outside chance to overtake the Red Sox this weekend, which would have put them in position to have home-field advantage for at least two of the three playoff tiers (since the American League has home-field advantage for the World Series).

Torre knew what that was worth, but he wasn't going to wring everything out of his roster for the slim possibility of gaining two games on the Sox in three days, even though the Yankees would have won the division based on head-to-head play if the AL East race had ended in a tie.

"If a situation presents itself where we have a chance to win, we'll try to win," Torre said before the game, "but the most important thing to me is to have these guys ready to start the second season."

Four months ago, who would have imagined that?

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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