Yankees and AJ out to prove they can make winning a habit

Last night the Yankees clinched their 14th playoff berth in 15 years, becoming the first team in the 2009 season to lock up their spot in the hunt for a title.

But neither the Yankees nor their fans are popping the champagne yet. They haven't even bought it. Because they have their eyes set on the prize, and that prize will be a lot easier to get their hands on if it's being pursued on familiar stomping grounds.

The '02, '03, and '04 World Series champions were all wild cards, so much has been made of the irrelevance of the division title (mostly from trailing teams, however. Not a lot of Yankee or Angels fans are shrugging, "Well, we'll take what we can get.")

In fact, the success of the wild cards makes sense theoretically, because they're the teams that are summoning up all the adrenaline and momentum that can find to squeeze into the playoffs. That drive and desperation can't be underestimated.

But for my money, give me home field advantage over dogmatic drive. Any day of the week.

It's ironic, really, that we're so ravenous for the new Yankee Stadium, when a year ago the thought of moving across the street was horrifying. "I'll never be as close to the new one, the old stadium's got too much history." And now? The new stadium may as well be oxygen, considering out rapt obsession we have with playing there.

All that's standing in the way of that is six. Any combination of Yankee wins or Red Sox losses that add up to 6. The magic number standing in between us and the lusty comfort of our own stadium.

Get through today's game, and we're not just gaining ground on the division title, but replenishing our confidence stores that took a bit of a hit in the last week. We're also heading back to the Bronx knowing we can beat anyone.

Mercifully, the rubber match against the Angels is a day game, which is fortunate, because I think I have 5 hours or less before the fumes I'm running on evaporate. It also gives me that. Much. More. Time. To work myself into a frenzied tither about this weekend's Red Sux series.

Today AJ Burnett (11-9, 4.22) faces Scott Kazmir (9-8, 5.08). The baseball gods really aren't making things easy for the burnt out fan, huh. The Yankees as a whole are just as harmless against Kazmir as they are against the Angels. I guess it's a good fit, but that doesn't mean I don't want to rip off Tampa Bays' arms and bludgeon them to death with them for letting the Yankee Killer ministry adopt junior Yankee Killer-in-training.

To put it in perspective: Jeter, Cano, ARod, Matsui, and Swisher are all hitting below .200 against Kazmir. (I won't mention names, but some barely over .100...)

As is customary for the Yanks, the biggest question tugging at them moving into the postseason is pitching. Even if it wasn't pitching, it'd be pitching, because I think rotation drama is a contractual element of their team mission statement. It's AJ's turn to face the scrutiny in the rotation, and just as the Yanks need to win another one to prove last night wasn't a fluke, our boy's gotta do the same to demonstrate his last 7-inning, 1-run gem is a true return to form rather than a temporary highlight.

I know it doesn't look good, but this team can hit Kazmir. Maybe they couldn't in the past, but the transformation that these bats have undergone is evident, and for God's sake, someone send Kevin Long a cheese/wine/biscotti basket.

The line-up isn't freezing on fastballs--they lose efficacy when they're challenged with off-speed pitches. Halladay and his arsenal of about 34,219 pitches murder them with this. But Kazmir's change-up is average at best, and his 4-seamer is nothing the Yanks can't handle.

It may seem like the Yanks were slipping into a lull, but what I do know about this team is that an offensive hemorrhage is never far off. The Angels may have seen their share of empty chambers, but the barrel of the gun is a little more loaded in this year's Russian roulette match. Pull the trigger, Anaheim.


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