HOUSTON -- The Yankees have become so skilled at beating the odds, so confident in their ability to flip the script, that setting up another do-or-die scenario for Saturday night’s Game 7 of the ALCS felt like just another chapter of their grand plan.
Eight months ago, when the Yankees first gathered at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, no one really had a grasp of what this developing roster could accomplish, other than maybe climb a few more rungs on the learning curve en route to a fourth- place finish in the American League East.
Fast-forward to Saturday at Minute Maid Park, and largely the same core — with some notable upgrades — was one win away from the franchise’s first World Series berth in eight years, thanks to a 4-0 mark when facing elimination this month.
That 2009 title, also known as No. 27 for the franchise, was secured much differently from the Yankees’ current pursuit of No. 28, which has been an out-of-the-blue dash for the Fall Classic.
The ’09 champs were constructed specifically for that purpose, bolstered by the winter acquisitions of CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett — at a total investment of nearly $425 million.
Compare that with last offseason, when Brian Cashman passed on trading for Chris Sale, clung tightly to his prized prospects and spent $86 million to bring back Aroldis Chapman, the top closer on the market but an apparent luxury for a team not expected to contend in 2017.
We were dead wrong on that assessment. And these Yankees taught us that there can be a more organic method of striving for a World Series rather than following the Steinbrenner blueprint to the letter, as the ’09 club did. Those Yankees, in Joe Girardi’s second year at the helm, won the AL East title by eight games, swept the Twins in the Division Series and always had the upper hand in the ALCS before outlasting the Angels in six games. When they dethroned the Phillies, the reigning champs, by taking another six-game series, the Yankees’ prevailing sentiment was relief.
“It was expected with that club,” Girardi said before Friday’s Game 6. “And I think the mentality, as we’re entering September, if you don’t win the World Series, it’s a failure. I know as a player in 1998, we felt more pressure that year for the World Series because we felt like we had to validate the season.
“So I think there’s a much different feeling because we were a wild card. We weren’t a division winner with the best record. We were the underdog in most series that we’ve been in. I think our guys have handled that very well.”
We’ll politely disagree with Girardi’s use of the “underdog” label — that’s a debatable term for a club that totes a $200-million payroll. But there is a liberating sense of abandon that comes with low expectations, and these Yankees were freed from that pressure early on, which in turn enabled this next generation of Yankees to just play the game. That’s what they’ve shown since Opening Day, when they sprinted to a 21-9 start, suffered through a July-August swoon, then rebounded to chase the Red Sox right down to the season’s final weekend.
After six months of weathering that turbulence, the Yankees you’ve seen in October are a product of both the struggle and the success, so it’s a mistake to think they might be derailed by a few more bumps. The process didn’t make them impervious to losing — as they did in falling behind 0-2 to the Indians and Astros. Simply better equipped to calmly brush off the dirt and disappointment from Friday’s Game 6 loss at Minute Maid Park, then go back to work the next night with the season at stake. It’s among the primary reasons the Yankees were still playing Saturday night.
“Just the way we can turn the page,” said Sabathia, who was 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. “It’s something that these guys have a gift to do. It’s hard to do, especially for a young team. And they seem to do that every day.”
Look at Aaron Judge. Entering Saturday, the Yankees’ MVP candidate had struck out 26 times during these playoffs, more than half his 44 at-bats, but still showed the perseverance to deliver some of the most crucial hits. During the series-turning Game 4 comeback, Judge blasted his one of his three ALCS homers and later smacked the tying RBI double off Astros closer Ken Giles. Overall in the ALCS, Judge was hitting .300 (6-for-20) with seven RBIs and five runs scored heading into Game 7.
“We’ve got our backs against the wall again,” Todd Frazier said, summing up the Yankees’ 2017 postseason. “But we’ve been here before.”