By Sean McAdam
NEW YORK -- So this is how it's going to be for the Yankees: uphill, short-handed, and a little humbled.
Last year they rolled over virtually everything in their wake, an unstoppable baseball machine. They were best team that money could -- and, in fact, did -- buy.
CC Sabathia was 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in five postseason starts, most on short rest, pitching as if he was worth every cent of the garganuan contract the Yanks had given him the previous winter.
Even Alex Rodriguez got into the act, shedding his reputation for postseason ineptitude and appearing, for the first time, comfortable in his own October skin.
The Yankees weren't challenged much last postseason, at least not until they ran square into Cliff Lee in Game One of the World Series. They swept Minnesota, took a 2-0 lead against Los Angeles of Anaheim, and fairly coasted into the Series.
The whole thing seemed to be inevitable. They had spent 243 million to get the three best free agents on the market and, properly reloaded, they weren't going to be denied.
But not this time. After the requisite pummeling of the Twins again in the ALDS, the Yankees found themselves in trouble just innings into the ALCS, trailing early and needing an eighth-inning rally to avoid a Game One loss. Next came three straight losses, putting the Yankees in the unfamiliar position of having to fight. And not just fight -- fight from behind.
Certainly, Wednesday's 7-2 victory was far from artistic. Not one of Sabathia's six innings was routine innings, as he gave up 11 hits. The double from Rodriguez in the fifth was his first extra-base hit since the end of the regular season. And they still aren't getting any production from Nick Swisher, Marcus Thames or Lance Berkman.
But they got a trip to Texas out of it, which beats the alternative. And afterward, they took some pride in fighting to keep their season going.
"There was a determination," said manager Joe Girardi, summing up his team's pregame mindset. "We have not played extremely well in this series. There was determination that we were going to go out and play our game today."
You could almost see Sabathia huffing and puffing. It seemed he was constantly, perpetually in trouble. And yet, every time he walked off the mound at the close of an inning, he left Rangers baserunners behind, stranded, the offense's hopes dashed again. The Rangers left at least one in every one of his six innings, several in scoring position.
"Scared" would be too strong a word to describe how they played Wednesday. But "resolute" seems about right.
"I think when it's win or go home," said Curtis Granderson, "you know, you've got as much energy as you need."
Whatever they do from here -- and remember, a win Friday only gaurantees them another date with Lee for Game Seven Saturday -- they will do without Mark Teixeira, sidelined for rest of the postseason by a popped hamstring. Teixeira had been hitless before he went down Tuesday night, but at the very least he gave them typically flawless defense. And if you think that aspect of the game is overrated, then you weren't watching his replacement, Berkman, pull a pratfall in foul territory, or Swisher's imitation of a falling redwood tree in the late innings of Game Four.
No one will feel sorry for them, of course, because, ahem, other teams were hit much harder by injuries. And also because they're the Yankees, for whom October sometime seems like a birthright, an entitlement deeded to them down through the years.
And the Yankees are not complaining. In fact, you get the sense that they enjoy scrapping, enjoy getting up after being knocked down, if for no other reason than they like showing people it's not as easy as it sometimes looks for them.
"Obviously, it's not a walk in the park," said Swisher. "We've got our work cut out for us. But to be in the battle we're in right now, man, it's fun. We've got to embrace that chaos and just enjoy the moment. And to be able to enjoy it as a team, it's a lot of fun.
"Fighting is what we do best. We really, really enjoy it."
Which is just as well. Without any margin for error and Lee waiting on the horizon, they're going to get plenty more chances.