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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees’ playoff berth would’ve been tough to predict

Yankees' Aaron Judge, right, and C.C. Sabathia celebrate

Yankees' Aaron Judge, right, and C.C. Sabathia celebrate in the locker room after the Yankees clinched a playoff berth on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Credit: AP / Fred Thornhill

TORONTO

So how do you measure what the Yankees accomplished Saturday in Game No. 154 at Rogers Centre, a 5-1 victory over the Blue Jays that launched a cork-popping celebration no one outside their clubhouse saw coming six months earlier?

What can possibly put this into perspective? The giddy Yankees burned through 68 bottles of Bottega Prosecco after the clincher, then attacked the colossal cooler of Budweiser, spraying each other with hoppy congratulations.

The black caps were marked with the generic achievement “2017 Postseason” and the T-shirts featured the rather innocuous slogan “Take 17.” It’s standard playoff practice to issue the new merchandise, and the Yankees wore the stuff soaked to the bone, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of what this team attained by reaching the postseason.

“We didn’t really talk about other people’s opinions,” said Aaron Judge, his backward cap barely shielding him from the beers exploding around him. “We had a job to do on the field.”

That’s the thing. The Yankees didn’t manufacture a chip on their shoulder or proclaim a Bronx-against-the-world mentality. And we’re not suggesting that at a cost of about $200 million, this was some sort of pinstriped little engine that could.

The reality is, the Yankees completed a franchise rebuild in roughly eight months and crafted a 2017 contender from the ashes of the July 2016 fire sale, weaving together a collection of former draft picks, international signings and outside free agents. Whether it was the rapid maturation of homegrown talent such as Judge and Luis Severino, the re-acquisition of Aroldis Chapman or the midseason deals for Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Sonny Gray, this was a smartly assembled roster that meshed better than most had expected.

When some Yankees tried to suggest this was possible in spring training, we dismissed it as nothing more than the company line. Joe Girardi had to preach optimism because that’s what he’s paid to do. All the talk of youthful energy, the boundless potential — we chalked those up as catchphrases, empty calories for hungry fans to consume. For our part, we picked them to finish fourth in the AL East with 83 wins.

Leave it to CC Sabathia, a 17-year veteran, to see the road ahead somewhat more optimistically. Sabathia, along with Girardi, believed the ’17 Yankees had a legit chance from the jump, and the first stage of that vision was completed a week shy of the regular-season finale.

“I felt like the talent was always in there,” Sabathia said. “It was just a matter of when it came through. And it came through really quick.”

To a man, the Yankees said they hoped what they did Saturday, punching a ticket to the playoffs, was just the start of their greater goals. The AL East has yet to be decided — even through Boston’s magic number is down to five with eight to play — and Girardi insists that remains the target.

But the Yankees deserved to enjoy their moment, and as much as we think the multiple rounds of champagne-guzzling in baseball is way overdone, this celebration fit the accomplishment. While so many come off as orchestrated made-for-TV productions, this one had an organic feel to it, and it really wasn’t over the top.

As soon as Aroldis Chapman got pinch hitter Rob Refsnyder — remember him? — on a bouncer to first base, Greg Bird calmly stepped on the bag and the Yankees celebrated in businesslike fashion, as if it were May or July, with the usual handshake procession.

In the clubhouse, the party picked up, but Girardi held court in his office, where he talked about the contributions of everyone, from ownership to the front office to his coaching staff. He is in the final year of his contract, but that’s rarely been mentioned during this playoff march, and he again has done an admirable job of keeping the focus on the field.

Girardi gets his share of heat for his bullpen machinations and the whole binder image, but there’s no denying his crucial role in getting the Yankees here, of developing the young core while making sure the veterans are taken care of as well. Fostering that type of unselfish vibe is not automatic.

“It’s been a while since that happened,” Girardi said. “You’re talking ’96, ’97, with guys like Mo, Jete, Pettitte and Jorge.”

Those are immortal Yankee names, from legendary teams. And they all started out as underdogs, too.

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