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Collective awakening saved Yanks

Collective awakening saved Yanks

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The Yankees' season had been on a path to nowhere for about eight weeks when the clubhouse doors slammed shut in Toronto, the team determined to hash out its differences face to face.

Tact went out the window that afternoon. The words bouncing off the walls of a tiny room at Rogers Centre were scathing and heated. And when the faces of those chastised returned to their natural hues, the slumbering, slumping Yankees were gone.

Enter the comeback Yankees of 2007, the mega-millions payroll that somehow backed into becoming an underdog hungry for that elusive 27th World Series title.

"It was just a good meeting," recalled left-hander Andy Pettitte. "When you get in the room, we were able to get stuff off our chests. Guys were able to vent and stuff like that, and air each other out a little bit. That's good. That's not a bad thing. ... I think we had bottomed out."

As the Yankees find themselves on familiar ground this October -- having participated in every American League Division Series since the best-of-five round was introduced to Major League Baseball in 1995 -- this may be remembered as the year when they came closest to not making it.

"Everyone here knew we had a good team -- we were just playing bad," captain Derek Jeter said.

Even Alex Rodriguez, thumping home runs at a record pace, admitted that he had nights when he went home and couldn't envision pulling the Yankees out of their malaise. For this roster to fulfill its goal of reaching the playoffs and shaking up the party, no one man could carry the Yankees all the way.

"We've needed every single person in this clubhouse," Rodriguez said. "That's what makes this rewarding."

It was going to take a complete team effort, and before long, that was exactly what they got. Again, the path traces back to that series in Toronto, when the Yankees hit their season low of eight games under .500, 14 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East.

"We knew we were better than 21-29," said manager Joe Torre. "It was just a matter of us getting healthy and just trying to figure out the best way to put people in the lineup and around it."

With nowhere to go but up, fiery words fanned what embers remained to create the second-half firestorm that would save the Bronx from a dark, baseball-free fall.

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"It was not fun," first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "What we heard from the people that were talking, it was embarrassing. It hit you right between the eyes. To hear what we heard from who we did, as a first-year Yankee, I didn't want to go down as the group that was the first team to not make the playoffs. I didn't want that hanging over my head all winter."

Flickers of life began to resonate. The Yankees had Roger Clemens furiously rushing through a Baseball America tour of the Minor League system, but the soon-to-be 45-year-old Rocket could pitch only once every five days (and later, even less frequently).

But injured contributors were healing, and members of the struggling Yankees' lefty-laden lineup of Bobby Abreu, Robinson Cano, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui couldn't possibly continue to falter forever. Sooner or later, they would -- and did -- turn it around.

"When you're struggling, you just hope there's some time in the schedule where you can make up some ground to put yourself in the mix," general manager Brian Cashman said. "I didn't think it couldn't happen. I just knew we had to play one day at a time at the best of our abilities to pull it off."

American League Division Series schedule
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs. Boston Red Sox
Date
Time
Site
Network
Wed., Oct. 36:30 p.m. Fenway Park TBS
Fri., Oct. 58:30 p.m.Fenway Park TBS
Sun. Oct. 73 p.m.Angel Stadium TBS
*Mon. Oct. 89:30 p.m.Angel Stadium TBS
*Wed. Oct. 108:30 p.m.Fenway Park TBS
New York Yankees vs. Cleveland Indians
Date
Time
Site
Network
Thu., Oct. 46:30 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
Fri., Oct. 55 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
Sun. Oct. 76:30 p.m. Yankee Stadium TBS
*Mon. Oct. 86 p.m. Yankee Stadium TBS
*Wed. Oct. 105 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
* If necessary. All times ET.

For Torre, the turning points came in stages. Resting the aching Damon in favor of Melky Cabrera in center field not only provided the Yankees with an injection of youth, but it helped quiet Damon's aching calves enough to set up another late-season switch. Damon would slip into left field behind an ailing Matsui to provide more freshness, running down fly balls with reckless abandon in August and September.

A pitching staff hampered by injuries too plentiful to count -- again, perhaps it was a bad omen that Carl Pavano made his way to the mound on Opening Day (but only once after) -- finally settled into its own, regaining Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina from maladies to provide some assistance for Pettitte, who started slowly after Spring Training back spasms and likened his early toils to "four rookies and myself" in the rotation.

Given that structure, an overtaxed bullpen was permitted time to breathe and recuperate. Luis Vizcaino, the Major League-ready portion of the Randy Johnson trade, came up big for a time, carrying the middle innings after lending his ear to Mariano Rivera's helpful words. With Vizcaino and callup Edwar Ramirez giving a new look to the bullpen, opponents suddenly had to handle variety, freeing the Yankees to deal away Torre favorite (and one-time equipment arsonist) Scott Proctor at the trading deadline.

That would soon give way to the unknown, as time and time again, the Yankees reached into a burgeoning farm system that resembled a bottomless pit. Famously, Cashman balked at a deadline deal that could have brought Eric Gagne to New York from the Texas Rangers, instead taking brief heat as the coveted but flawed reliever was dealt north to the Red Sox.

Confident in the abilities of producing his own talent from within, having already seen top pitching prospect Phil Hughes contribute immediately, Cashman found an even better option than Gagne in a husky one-time Nebraska starting pitcher named Joba Chamberlain.

Dating back to the early months of the season, team insiders had assured Cashman that Chamberlain would not only contribute on the Major League level, but the then 21-year-old could outperform some of the current members of the bullpen right now. Torre recalled driving home one night after a Yankees home game, catching up on team matters with his general manager, and hearing Cashman tantalizingly intone, "Wait until you see this kid."

"We needed something in our bullpen, and I thought it took a lot of courage on Brian's part to make that commitment to have a young pitcher like this go out and try it out of the bullpen," Torre said. "Evidently, they knew a lot about his insides and his personality to know that even if he failed at it, it wouldn't affect him."

The experiment, and an accompanying set of "Joba Rules," were hatched, and Chamberlain made his debut on Aug. 7 at Toronto -- already the site of so many great dramas. The night Chamberlain got his feet wet (it would be 12 games and 16 innings before he allowed an earned run), Clemens was ejected and suspended for throwing at Alex Rios, retaliating for Josh Towers' drilling of Rodriguez earlier in the game.

That contest -- in A-Rod's mind, another turning point -- was a continuation of a feud dating back, coincidentally, to the day after the closed-door meeting in Toronto, when Rodriguez shouted "Ha!" in third baseman Howie Clark's ear, causing him to drop a popup.

By the time all was said and done, though, Rodriguez seemed to have the last laugh, far and away leading the AL in a stable of offensive categories on his way to the postseason.

In many ways, the Yankees had much to celebrate as they champagne-spattered the walls of the visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field on Wednesday, fighting extraordinary odds to reach this point. But in another fashion, their battle is just about to begin.

"That's why we're all here," Rodriguez said. "That's why Bobby comes here from Philadelphia. Clemens. Pettitte. We're all here for one reason. We've all done special things in this game as individuals, but we're here to win the world championship. Anything less is a disappointment."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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