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Yankees clinch division, home field advantage

New York Yankees' Robinson Cano gets sprayed with

New York Yankees' Robinson Cano gets sprayed with champagne as he celebrates after the Yankees clinched their first title in the new stadium. (Sept. 27, 2009) Credit: John Dunn

Players danced and chanted and poured in the middle of the clubhouse, many of them wearing swimming, and even scuba, goggles to keep the stinging bubbly out of their eyes.

The light gray T-shirts handed out moments earlier were quickly darkened from the liquid, which streamed downward off the bills of their caps emblazoned, like the shirts, with the achievement that had been their goal since spring training.

>> See photos of the Yankees celebrating their AL East crown

This was the celebration on hold since Tuesday, when the Yankees clinched a playoff berth but said there was more to accomplish. They did that Sunday as, behind Hideki Matsui's two-out, two-run single in the sixth inning and six strong innings from Andy Pettitte, the Yankees clinched the AL East title with a 4-2 win over Boston in front of 47,576 at the Stadium.

"This is the fun part," said Derek Jeter, freshly soaked from a drive-by dousing by several teammates. "We're celebrating a long year. Everything starts in the middle of February, so there's a lot of work that goes into it, so this is a lot of fun."

The Yankees didn't experience much fun in 2008, when they missed the playoffs after 13 straight appearances. "To think about where we were just 12 months ago, this is especially gratifying," Alex Rodriguez said.

The Yankees (100-56, 49-19 since the All-Star break) have clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs and tied the season series with Boston (9-9) after losing the first eight games.

The completion of their second home sweep of Boston was made possible by the combination the Yankees hope can carry them throughout next month - and early into the one after that.

Pettitte (14-7) allowed two runs and seven hits in six innings, his second straight strong start after missing his Sept. 16 start because of soreness in his left shoulder, a problem he downplayed at the time and seems to have put behind him.

He held the Red Sox in check after one-run hiccups in the first and third innings, keeping his offense in the game until it finally broke through against Paul Byrd (1-3).

After Melky Cabrera homered in the third, Matsui lined a two-out, two-run single to right off Takashi Saito to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the sixth. Mark Teixeira's towering shot to right in the eighth off Daniel Bard, his 38th homer and 120th RBI of the season, made it 4-2.

Brian Bruney pitched a perfect 12/3 innings and Phil Coke struck out David Ortiz to end the eighth.

In a bat-shattering ninth, Mariano Rivera overcame a mental mistake by Robinson Cano - who dropped the ball when he foolishly tried to spin from the hole and get a difficult force at second instead of making an easy play to first, putting two runners on base with one out - and earned his 44th save.

"It's always pitching," A-Rod said. "No matter what people say about our hitting, it's always pitching and defense and then some timely hitting. I like our lineup and I like our team."

The magic number countdown for the team's first AL East crown since 2006 began in earnest when the Yankees hit the road for a six-game trip beginning Sept. 18, and they had it down to five before beginning this series Friday.

Now two new magic numbers emerge, both intricately related: 27, the number on Joe Girardi's back signifying what would be the Yankees' total for world championships, and 11, the number of victories in the postseason it will take to win it all.

And so, even as the Yankees took time to celebrate, there also was the inescapable fact that accompanies playing for this team. Without 11 leading to 27, yesterday's achievement easily could become forgotten.

"This is only step one," said Girardi, aware of the exacting expectations first as a player and coach and now a manager.

The Captain is aware of them, too.

"It's always like that," Jeter said. "This is the first goal for us, to win the division. That's why we didn't celebrate when we clinched the playoff spot, because we had our sights on the division. Now we have to regroup in a week and get back to work."

>> See photos of the Yankees celebrating their AL East crown

>> See some of the Yankees' top moments of 2009

>> Read about the Yankees' biggest wins this year

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