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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees showed mettle in winning the AL East, but they had to work hard for it

Raul Ibanez and manager Joe Girardi celebrate after

Raul Ibanez and manager Joe Girardi celebrate after defeating the Boston Red Sox and clinching the AL East title. (Oct. 3, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Standing in the champagne-soaked clubhouse, swim goggles pushed back onto his forehead, Russell Martin squinted as he looked around. His expression seemed to say: Is it really over?

Yes, it was over, and the Yankees -- after a month-long, steel-cage match with the Orioles -- had finally emerged as the winners of the American League East.

The white caps served as the MLB-licensed crowns. But this was a title pinned to their hearts, a well-earned honor that made even the Yankees, a team that often behaves like victory can be bought for the right price, appreciate the value of good, old-fashioned hard work.

"It feels great," Martin said. "You have to give a hat tip to the Orioles, but we never took our foot off the pedal. And I think everybody feels pretty happy that we don't have to fight through that wild-card jam."

This was supposed to be easy. With a 10-game lead back on July 18, the remaining nine weeks of the regular season figured to be an extended summer vacation for the Yankees.

But a funny thing happened this year on the way to the AL East title. The Yankees needed all 162 games to get there -- and it was in doubt until the final day of the regular season. That can be unsettling in the Bronx, where there's a tendency to think that spending $200 million gets you some kind of Golden Ticket to the playoffs.

Not as much anymore, and the Yankees have a few people to thank for that. First, the surprising Orioles, who didn't concede until losing to the Rays, 4-1, in a defeat immediately celebrated at the Stadium via the centerfield videoboard.

The other was Bud Selig, whose reformatting of the playoff structure for this season made winning the division a valued commodity again, and by doing so, scared the daylights out of the Yankees.

"There's a lot that can do wrong in one game," Joe Girardi said.

Take the Rangers, for instance, who flubbed their season finale to the A's earlier in the day and handed the AL West title to Oakland, ultimately blowing the 13-game lead they held June 30.

As for the Yankees, they had plenty of chances to implode down the stretch. But after allowing the Orioles to pull into a tie for the top spot on Sept. 4, they never yielded a share of first place. And in digging deep to outlast Baltimore, the Yankees discovered something else -- they may have learned to appreciate even more what it means to be division champs.

"We had to fight, scratch and claw," Nick Swisher said. "We didn't let it come to us. We went out and took it."

By holding on to at least a share of first place for an incredible 114 days -- using their fingernails during the final weeks -- the Yankees had to show the mettle of a champion, not just put on a pinstriped uniform and look the part for six months.

"It has not been an easy season," Girardi said. "You look at some of the injuries we went through, some of the ups and down, you would never have thought we'd of won 95 games.

"It's really rewarding. These guys did a tremendous job. And it was not just a few guys, it was a number of guys."

Since the introduction of the wild card in 1995, the Yankees have qualified for the playoffs every season but one, winning the division 13 times in 18 years. With that kind of success, a team can take the playoffs for granted. As Derek Jeter said in Toronto last week, "I don't really know any different, when you think about it." He still doesn't.

Most of the faces around Jeter have changed, but the Yankees keep finding the pieces, or spend the money to buy those pieces. The 2012 Yankees, however, came together as more than the sum of its parts. They proved that during the regular season, and the division title is much sweeter for that. What the Yankees do from here will be this group's legacy, but winning the AL East is good place to start.

And as the Yankees know by now, it's much, much better than the alternative.

New York Sports