Yankees cannot afford to lose to Twins
Pressure to win is high for wealthiest team in baseball
NEW YORK -- The mighty Yankees, who've won more games than any team in baseball this year, with their $202 million payroll, all their swagger and the best lineup money can buy, are in a precarious situation. They cannot afford to lose to the gasping Minnesota Twins.
The Twins, after finally winning the American League Central Division on Tuesday with their stunning 12-inning AL tiebreaker victory over Detroit, will be riding on fumes when they arrive at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night for their AL Division Series opener.
The Twins, who tore from behind to overtake the Tigers, had to play 163 games to nab a trip to the playoffs and you have to wonder what they have left. Especially against the well-rested, confident Yankees.
On the other hand, they could be riding the crest of momentum and aren't even aware they've spent so much emotional energy.
A loss to the Twins in the first round, or even to say Boston in the AL Championship Series, would be a major pinstriped disaster.
I'm not saying the Yankees have to win their first World Series since 2000, but they certainly have to get there for 2009 to be a success.
Wouldn't a World Series against Joe Torre and his Los Angeles Dodgers be spectacular? After all, the two teams have played in the Series 11 times. And it was Torre, of course, who left the Yankees on a sour note after the 2007 season, who last took them to the World Series.
All those dreams would become just that -- dreams -- if the Yankees stumble in either the first or second round.
Losing to Boston in the ALCS would be tragic to Yankees fans. Yet it was the Red Sox who won the first eight games this season, then the Yankees won nine of the last 10, with four shutouts and two lopsided scores in the mix.
Should they face the Los Angeles Angels in the ALCS, I'd cut the Yankees some slack. The Angels are on an emotional high inspired by the memory of pitcher Nick Adenhart, who was killed in a spring auto accident.
Don't forget, the Yankees didn't even get to the postseason last October and in each of the three seasons before that, they didn't make it past the Division Series. In fact, in 2007 and 2006, while losing to Cleveland and Detroit, they won just one game in each of the best-of-five series.
It's been a glorious, victory-filled season in the $1.5 billion House that George Built. The stadium was never more beautiful than on Tuesday as the Yankees went through a workout under a bright sun.
Manager Joe Girardi says this is a lot different Yankees team than the one which was ousted in three consecutive Division Series.
That said, he believes there's enormous determination to make amends and shrugs off the added pressure angle.
"I sense there was a determination after last year, when we didn't make the playoffs," said Girardi, whose first season at the helm was 2008. "You don't play this game and put all that hard work in just to make the playoffs.
"There's a goal that was set when we went to work last winter. So, I think our guys are very determined. We have some guys who've been here for a lot of championships and some guys who have playoff experience. Everyone wants another championship."
The Yankees won all seven games against the Twins, including a three-game sweep July 7-9 at the Metrodome, the last time the two teams met. Ten days later, the Yankees began an eight-game winning streak to take over first place in the East Division for good.
Derek Jeter, the Yankees captain and shortstop, says in the early years when they were winning four out of five World Series (1996-2000) under Torre, "you don't ever take those things for granted. I know -- everyone knows -- how difficult it was. We made it look easy."
"I don't really know how you can put more pressure on a team that is expected to win every year," he said. "We're supposed to win. I don't know if you're supposed to win more because you're playing good at the end of the year."
Reliever Mariano Rivera, who saved 44 games with a 1.76 ERA, says making amends for the years the Yankees failed to make it past the first round is not on his mind.
"I don't play like that," he said. "What happened, happened. We just have to go about our business. We have to do our jobs. We're expected to win; we always are. This is a brand new game starting tomorrow."
He's most interested in how the younger players -- those who haven't been in the playoff wars -- prepare.
"I don't want to try and fix something that isn't broke, but I like to watch how they do their work," he said. "We need to get back to the World Series and it would wonderful to play Joe [Torre]."
Mark Teixeira's take is different: "It doesn't really matter to us what happened last year, 10 years ago or a hundred years ago because we have to take care of our own business.
"You put pressure on yourself all year long. You want to succeed. You don't want to go out there and play poorly. I think over 162 games, we showed that we can handle any kind of pressure. In the playoffs, if you try harder, you're not going to play better. This isn't football or some Olympic sport where you have to try your hardest to reach the end line. Baseball, you have to play calm and under control -- and play your game. That's what we're going to do."
After falling short last year, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman did a superb job of improving the team even though the additions of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Teixiera cost more than $400 million.
When you're the Yankees, knee deep in money, obtaining the best players is much easier.
That brings us to their current predicament that unfolds beginning Wednesday night.
Maybe it's not a predicament, but it's a position no matter how you assess it. The Yankees, who won 103 games, cannot afford to lose.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.