They were unbeaten in the American League Division Series. They grabbed a 2-0 lead in the AL Championship Series, before winning in six games. But with Wednesday night's 6-1 loss to the Phillies in the World Series opener, they trail for the first time this October.
This is not a particularly steep hill to climb, but there are concerns. This was the Yankees' first loss at home in this postseason after five straight victories. Their ace, CC Sabathia, took a loss for the first time after winning three straight. And this was the first time in this postseason that they were held to less than four runs.
Against lefty Cliff Lee, baseball's leading offense generated next to nothing. "As far as being frustrated, our guys will grind it out," said manager Joe Girardi. "I'm not concerned about that."
Another concern looms with Lee. Maybe he will continue to pitch like this and take over this Series in much the same way that Sabathia took over the ALCS. Again, Girardi was not overly concerned.
"We know he's very good, and we like the way our guy is throwing the ball, too, CC," the manager said. "Cliff Lee has been tough on us this year, we know that. I mean, he's pitching extremely well. But one thing is he can't pitch every day."
But perhaps he can pitch more than every fifth day. Perhaps the Phillies will bring him back on short rest for Game 4 just as the Yankees brought back Sabathia in Game 4 of the ALCS. "We'll see how it goes," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "I mean, we'll just see where we're at. We've got time"
For the moment we also have Game 2. The Yankees, for the first time in this postseason, will be looking at a dose of jeopardy.
ONE FOR THE ROAD
|2008||Phillies||Rays||Phillies in 5|
|2006||Cardinals||Tigers||Cardinals in 5|
|2003||Marlins||Yankees||Marlins in 6|
|2002||Giants||Angels||Angels in 7|
|1999||Yankees||Braves||Yankees in 4|
|1995||Braves||Indians||Braves in 6|
The Game 2 pitching matchup for tonight had been considered fascinating primarily for the presence of Pedro Martinez starting for the Phillies. But the presence of A.J. Burnett starting for the Yankees also offers some serious variables.
Pitching behind Sabathia in the New York rotation, Burnett has followed only success. For postseason games, his starts have not been highly pressurized. In this one, though, the Yankees will be leaning on him to get them back to even. Burnett gave the Yankees two solid starts in the postseason, but in the third, with a chance to close out the ALCS in Game 5, he was not successful.
Burnett is a veteran pitcher and the quality of his stuff is indisputable. But this is his first postseason. There is no substantial body of work to suggest that he will either thrive or struggle at this level.
Leading up to his first World Series start, Burnett said on Wednesday he would not try to sell himself on the notion that this was just another game.
"No, I want it to be my first World Series start," Burnett said with a smile. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited. I mean, I'm going to prepare, yeah, maybe, as another game, but deep down I know what it's about. I know how real it is, and I don't want to change it."
On the other side, Martinez may have been obtained by the Phillies for this sort of situation. Martinez, a pitching great, but also no slouch as a showman, put on a one-of-a-kind display at his interview session on Wednesday. Primarily, it was a critique of his coverage by the New York press over the years, particularly his years with the Red Sox. Martinez gave every indication of working himself into a righteous anger that he could perhaps channel into his Game 2 start. He made numerous comments in that direction. Here are two samples:
"I think in every aspect, you guys have used me and abused me," he told reporters. "You guys have abused my name. You guys have said so many things, have written so many things.
OFF ON THE WRONG FOOT
|Year||G1 winner||World champions|
|1992||Braves||Blue Jays, 4-2|
"One of your colleagues had me in the papers with horns and a tail, red horns and a tail. That's a sign of the devil. I'm a Christian man. I don't like those things. I take those things very serious."
Predictions vary dramatically on what might reasonably be expected from Martinez in Game 2. He was superb in a seven-inning, two-hit job against the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series, but the Dodgers are not the Yankees.
But he does have a long-term rivalry with the Yankees and he has been a favorite target of Yankees fans. Martinez will not lack for motivation in this start. He may be angry or competitive. He will probably be both. But circumstances have given him an opportunity no one else has had in the 2009 postseason. He could be the winning pitcher in a game that puts the Yankees down two games. That would be down two games in the World Series.
This one will be watched with particular intensity, by friends, by foes, by neutral observers. This is a fascinating historical dispute, and potentially, a turning point in the 2009 World Series.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.