Finish line in sight, Yankees aim for WS
Club sits one win from long-awaited 40th berth in Fall Classic
ANAHEIM -- It has been five long years since the Yankees could claim this position, needing just nine more innings of winning baseball to punch their ticket to the World Series.
Those 2004 Yankees couldn't polish off the Red Sox, but it's a different year and -- they believe -- a different story in the works. A clinching effort over the Angels on Thursday in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series would give the Yankees their 40th pennant and trip to the World Series.
The cast of characters has been almost completely revamped from the disappointing 2004 collapse, with only Hideki Matsui, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera still wearing pinstripes on a regular basis.
It is difficult for some to believe it has taken so long to get back.
"That tells you something, that it's not easy, no matter what team you're on," Rivera said. "You have to have a special team, special players, and that's what it takes to get this far.
"We have a great team and whatever we didn't do in years past, that's behind. We don't have to talk about it. 2009 is a different team, and we're here. That's what we should be talking about. We've got a great chance. A wonderful bunch of guys here who want to be here. We have to go out and play hard."
Though most of the team wasn't there to witness the heartache, some scars remain. Posada said that the Yankees are well aware nothing is set, and there is no underestimating an Angels club that is still very capable of authoring some nightmares.
"There's some young players that probably weren't even playing pro ball when that happened," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "But I think our guys understand how good the Angels are, and how important it is to go out and play great baseball tomorrow night and see where you're at."
Five years ago, New York lost a heartbreaking Game 4 in 12 innings before skidding to the finish line with three more losses against Boston -- including the final two in New York. These Yankees are hoping the series never gets that far, trying to wrap it up before boarding a cross-country flight.
"You try not to think about it," Posada said. "You try to stay in the moment that we are now. Take it one day at a time. You try to maintain everything and keep everything the same. You don't want to look more forward than just tomorrow."
There's another reason to polish things off as soon as possible. Forgetting his very valid point about the playoff pitching sequence for a moment, Girardi said the last thing the Yankees want to do is give a good team like the Angels some momentum.
"When you have the opportunity to get something over with, you'd like to do it," Derek Jeter said.
So there's no reason to leave anything in the tank for Game 5, with some downtime coming up between the ALCS and World Series if they can get it done. The onus is on A.J. Burnett to plant his foot on the accelerator, in what could be the game he has waited his entire life to pitch. All the Yankees have to do is keep the line moving.
"We have an opportunity to do something special," Johnny Damon said. "There's two more weeks left in the season and we kind of have to go full bore. That's what we're hoping for."
3-1 ALCS ADVANTAGE HUGE
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It has become popular to begin comparing this Yankees team to the best of the dynasty years -- that 1998 championship club -- because of the resiliency displayed within 15 regular-season walk-off wins and now two more in the postseason.
While Girardi has deflected those comments by saying the 2009 Yankees must win the World Series to march among the best, there are those who want to believe this Yankees team is better equipped to raise the 27th championship flag than almost all of its predecessors from the last decade.
"The similarities are just good teams," Andy Pettitte said. "Good starting pitching, good bullpens. Obviously our lineups are a little bit better from the standpoint of power. We had great lineups from the standpoint of throwing at-bats at you, but our guys have unbelievable power and are throwing great at-bats at guys right now.
"I've said it the whole postseason -- people were asking, 'What would you want? What would your wish list be?' There's nothing. Our team is sound. It's a matter of going out there and doing it."
The Yankees went through what Damon called a "hard workout" on Wednesday at Angel Stadium, smelling that finish line while making sure to stress that it isn't in sight. He'd know better than anyone, having been the lucky victor on the other end of the team that couldn't wrap things up.
"We didn't come out to win three games in a series and be happy about it," Damon said. "We'll be happy if we get that fourth win."
And while the Yankees are trying hard not to look ahead, the shining beacon of the Fall Classic is difficult to ignore. The key is not letting it affect their immediate focus.
"There's always something more," Mark Teixeira said. "During the season, it's, 'Hey, let's win the division.' Now it's, 'Let's get to the World Series.' You have to take it one game at a time and we've done a great job of it all year. Tomorrow night, we're going to play the game like we always have."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.