NEW YORK -- Is this the New York Yankees team that restores baseball's most successful franchise to its previous place at the top of the game? The next three weeks will tell that story, but the current squad looks like the the Bombers' best shot since 2001.
What is considered a World Series drought by the New York Yankees would be the mere blink of an eye to many other franchises. Nine years without a World Series championship? The Red Sox went 86 years. The White Sox went 88 years. The Cubs are at 101 and counting. Nine years is a trifle -- unless, of course, you are the Yankees. Then, ultimate victory is not simply desired. It is expected.
For a team with 26 World Series championships, this has been a slow decade in the postseason. No world championships since 2000. The Yankees have not even been to an American League Championship Series in five years, and we all know how 2004 ended.
Now the Yankees are back in the ALCS, where they will face the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This is the toughest competition the Yankees will see in this postseason -- a complete Angels team. In three Division Series from 2004-08, their offense was stopped cold by the Red Sox. This year, the Angels swept the Red Sox, getting brilliant pitching performances from John Lackey and Jered Weaver. And in Game 3, the Angels rallied late from a four-run deficit to sweep Boston. This was the kind of thing recent Angels teams could not do. But this is the best offense the Angels have had since their 2002 World Series championship, and their pitching, as usual, is rounding into form at the right time.
"They've got speed, they've got power and they're a gritty group of guys, no doubt about it," Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said.
The Yankees have been on the other side of the coin in recent seasons. They have had typically strong offenses -- among the best in the game on an annual basis. But in the postseason, you run into the best possible pitching -- pitching so good that it can shut down the best of offenses. If your pitching is so-so, and the Yankees' pitching been that in some postseasons, you aren't going to win.
This happened to New York to some extent in the final two games against the Angels in the 2005 Division Series. It happened in the last three games against Detroit in the '06 Division Series. The same type of thing occurred in an '07 Division Series loss to Cleveland. Some people referred to these outcomes as "upsets." No. The teams with the better pitching won, which is what is supposed to happen in October.
The Yankees spent $243.5 million after last season on two starting pitchers in an attempt to rectify the situation. So far, so good. New York was missing a genuine ace in recent postseasons. They have one now in CC Sabathia. A.J. Burnett has been up and down, but overall, all right, as the second starter. Andy Pettitte remains capable in the third rotation spot.
And the Yankees have put together a young, but talented group of relievers to form the bridge between the starters and closer Mariano Rivera. This was a development that could not have been predicted going into the season, but it is a big plus. Rivera is routinely such a sure thing that he is almost taken as a given at times. But the fact that he is having one of his very best seasons just as he's about to reach age 40 ought to be fully appreciated.
So the Yankees' postseason chances are much better than in recent years. The problem they have is not their own shortcomings, but the quality of the opposition. The Angels have eliminated the Yankees in two postseasons this century, and over the past six years they are 35-23 against the Yanks in the regular season. This Angels team is not an easier opponent than its predecessors.
"They're a very good team," Yankee manager Joe Girardi said on Thursday, a workout day for both clubs at Yankee Stadium. "There's been a lot made of what has happened between the Angels and the Yankees the past 10 years. What's not talked about is how good a team they've been over the last 10 years. World Series teams, ALCS's, winning their division, winning 100 games. They've been very tough on the Yankees.
"They're different from most teams. To me they remind me of teams that, when I came up and played, it was like playing the St. Louis Cardinals -- there was going to be a lot of action. One thing that you can't do is get caught up in the action. You have to continue to make pitches on them."
In the glory days of this franchise, one thing that separated the Yankees from other clubs -- apart from talent -- was an intangible quality. They were the Yankees. No one else qualified. It wasn't necessarily arrogance, it was uniqueness. It was both a privilege and a responsibility. Maybe this club can get back to that.
"There's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be," Swisher said. "I've been given a great opportunity, and I want to make the most of it."
"You come here to win a championship," said Sabathia, the Yankees' Game 1 starter. "We are one step closer to that. It's been a lot of fun coming here with all these great players. You have guys in that clubhouse that are probably going to the Hall of Fame. It's fun to see them go about their business every day, and being a part of this team."
This is the Yankees' most legitimate chance in years to be THE champions. The Angels stand directly in their path, offering a genuinely difficult challenge. That is the way these things are supposed to work, with everything on the line and potential greatness on each side.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.