Can the Yankees Get the First Round Monkey Off their Backs

When the ALDS opens today in the Bronx, it will be the latest installment in the now familiar baseball series called “Can the Yankees make it out of the first round?”  Before missing the playoffs last year, the Yankees had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in three consecutive years, part of a seven year streak of making the playoffs but not winning the World Series.

Those were not bad Yankee teams.  Many of them had very strong offenses, not unlike the current offense, although none of those teams played in the new home run friendly Yankee Stadium.  These teams also had the same dominant closer and starting pitching that was better than many remember.  The 2007 Yankees’ top two starters were Chien-Ming Wang (19-7, 3.70) and Andy Pettitte (15-9, 4.05).  In 2006, their top two starters, Chien-Ming Wang (19-6, 3.63) and Mike Mussina (15-7, 3.51) were slightly better.  In 2005, however, Randy Johnson (17-8, 3.79) and Mike Mussina (13-8, 4.41) were not a strong front of the rotation.  This year’s starting rotation led by C.C. Sabathia (19-8, 3.37 and A.J. Burnett (13-9, 4.04), may be better than in the previous three years but not by as much as selective memory might lead us to believe.  During their seven year run of making the playoffs but not winning the World Series, the Yankees three times won more than 100 games including 2002 when they won 103 games, as they did in 2009, before losing to the Angels in the first round.

Yankee fans can take comfort that this year’s team is, by most measures, very good, but they could certainly have taken comfort in that in 2002 or 2004 as well, but things didn’t work out so well those years.  If this year ends like 2005, 2006 or 2007, the great years by Mark Texeira, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Sabbathia and others, the different atmosphere in the clubhouse this year and the emergence of young role players like Phil Hughes will be quickly forgotten as Yankee fans will be treated to another off-season of tantrums from all three Steinbrenners.

This Yankee team is good enough to win the World Series, although it will be tough.  The starting pitching, bench and middle relief is probably stronger than in recent years.  The offense, of course, is very strong, but no stronger than the 2006 Yankees, and given the new ballpark, only slightly better than in 2004 and 2005.  The key for the Yankees will be to send a message, primarily to themselves, relatively early in the post-season that the monkey is no longer on their back.

Every game in the post-season is important, but for the Yankees the first game of the ALDS will take on unique import.  If they lose that game it is likely that the Steinbrenners, local media and the fans will begin panicking creating all kinds of problems for the rest of the post-season.  A decisive win in the first game will send the exact opposite message and allow the Yankees to carry the cool confidence which has characterized their entire season into the entire post-season.

The Yankees are professionals who have all played in high pressure situations before, but the context in which they play and the team’s recent history make this something of a special case.  If they lose tonight, the doubters will be out in full force, not without reason.  It is hard to imagine this will have no effect on the team.  Although on paper the Twins may be their weakest opponent, tonight’s game in its own way, may be the most important of the post-season for the Yankees.