'Championship or bust' mantra still rings true for Yanks
The New York Yankees are the one franchise in the league that plays a 162-game prelude.
In another market, a smaller city or an organization with a less overwhelming history, qualification for the postseason can be cause for municipal rejoicing, flights of civic pride and dancing in the streets. With the Yanks and their legions of followers, this sort of thing is a given -- the minimum annual allowance for a season of baseball.
And in fact, that is much more than merely pretense. The Yankees have reached the postseason 16 times in the last 17 years. Looking at what the 2012 Yanks are accomplishing, even with a series of injuries to some of the leading performers in the Major Leagues, it is no stretch to suggest that this season will extend that streak.
So the Yankees have been the Yankees in all those April-through-September seasons. But they have been more like mortals in the succeeding Octobers. The Bronx Bombers have won only one World Series in the last 11 years. Again, for franchises that haven't glimpsed a World Series during this generation -- or any generation -- this is the stuff of dreams. But for the Yanks, it is a virtual drought.
It was instructive over the weekend to be at Yankee Stadium for a rivalry series against the Red Sox in mid-August, and become involved in a conversation about what the Yankees postseason rotation would look like. In many recent seasons, a Yankees-Red Sox game was the definition of an important baseball event.
This season, the weekend ended with the Yanks leading the Sox by 13 1/2 games, so the regular season was no longer an issue in much doubt. What beckoned was the future, or at least the October future of the 2012 New York Yankees.
What has happened to the Yanks in some recent postseasons is what can happen to anybody. Running into top-shelf pitching staffs, they are no longer able to simply pound the opposition into submission.
Even in the 2011 American League Division Series against the Tigers, the Yankees scored 19 runs in two victories, and outscored the Tigers, 28-17. (Oops. Run differential lets the side down again.) The point is, New York were held in check in three of five games, and its pitchers never put together a complete shutdown of the Detroit offense.
We apologize in advance for looking beyond the final six weeks of the regular season, but come on, what about the Yanks' rotation this October?
CC Sabathia is expected to return this weekend from an elbow inflammation. His overall postseason record is not one of domination, but when the Yankees won it all in 2009, he was terrific enough.
His is probably the best pitching performance from a long-term free-agent contract in this generation. But he would need to be pitching at the 2009 level for the 2012 postseason Yanks.
The breakthrough starter for the Yankees has been Hiroki Kuroda, who has conveniently been at his absolute best when Sabathia has been on the disabled list. Since May 27, Kuroda has had a 2.27 ERA, and he has recently been even better than that.
He has had three postseason starts in the North American portion of his career; two were very good, one wasn't. But Kuroda, at age 37, is doing the best work of his career. He has been indispensable in the Yankees' regular-season success. It is not a stretch to envision him pitching at the same level this autumn.
When the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, they did so with a three-man rotation: Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and -- whatever else you say about him -- A.J. Burnett, who won a turning-point World Series start against the Phillies.
The three-man rotation would be more difficult to engineer this October. The postseason schedule, with the late inclusion of the Wild Card playoff game, will be more compressed than it was in 2009. But if you have three very good pitchers working at their best levels, you're likely to prevail anyway.
And that brings us to Pettitte, the all-time leader in postseason victories with 19. Returning from a one-season retirement, Pettitte, now 40, pitched with remarkable effectiveness until he suffered a fractured left ankle on June 27. Now, the Yanks hope that he can return by mid-September. That would give him enough time to be ready for the postseason.
Can it be that after all this time, the whole thing could once again depend on Andy Pettitte being there when the Yankees need him most? As an alternative, or as a fourth starter, Phil Hughes has pitched well often enough to give the Yanks hope.
Still, Plan A -- with three rotation spots being handled by Sabathia (the ace), Kuroda (pitching at top form) and Pettitte (proven and healthy once again) -- would look like a very hopeful scenario for the Yankees' typically lofty postseason aspirations. True, they have to get there first, but with the Yanks, it is difficult not to get into an October state of mind.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.