By Jon Lane
If you’re a Yankees fan, Dave Roberts still gives you nightmares. You remember, right? Game 4, 2004 ALCS, the Yankees three Mariano Rivera outs from sweeping the Red Sox on their turf and going to the World Series. Alas, Rivera walked leadoff hitter Kevin Millar, Roberts entered as a pinch-runner, stole second base, scored the tying run and a few things happened along the way ….
Despite subsequent seasons brimming with optimism and marked by late-season surges, the Yankees haven’t sniffed the World Series since and is one year removed from missing the postseason party entirely. That won’t happen this time – their magic number for clinching the AL East is 12 and a playoff spot a mere seven – but depending how the Yankees perform in the postseason, the 2009 season will be looked back as either one for the ages or a wholly disappointing, complete and downright disaster. That ’04 team won 101 games, but bring up that season and you’ll hear sob stories about Roberts, David Ortiz, Tom Gordon, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez. In the Bronx, like it or not, fair or unfair, it’s win or else.
One reason why confidence is high this year will be different: The Yankees have their version of Roberts, Brett Gardner. Peter Abraham, author of the popular LoHud Yankees Blog, created the moniker “Gritty, Gutty Brett Gardner.” I look at him as a hot sparkplug, one that provides the speed and intangibles that wins many battles before their fought.
Take Monday night, when Gardner broke the Angels’ backs in the Yankees’ 5-3 win at Yankee Stadium, scoring the winning run on a double steal and a throwing error. It started with a bold decision by Joe Girardi, the type of gut-and-conscience tugging choice you need to make in the playoffs, when he pinch-ran Gardner for Mark Teixeira.
You read that correctly: Mark Teixeira, a top contender for AL MVP who was 3-for-4 and a home run from the cycle. Millar was far from MVP material in ’04, but still wielded a big stick (.297-18-74) and Terry Francona removed him with the season on the line, again a choice that must be made in October.
Girardi was aware the Angels are in striking distance for homefield advantage with three games still to play next week out west. He also knew that Gardner on the bases plants bugs in the respective minds of a battery. A pitcher looks over his shoulder like he’s being chased. A catcher is already thinking what if Gardner runs. And when Gardner took off for third, Mike Napoli was affected, so was third baseman Chone Figgins, who was playing off the line and could not corral Napoli’s low throw, one that skipped into left field and allowed Gardner to score.
The Angels seem to bring out some finesse in the Bronx Bombers, writes John Harper. For one night they brought out their best. The Yankees are six games ahead of a team that owns a 32-17 regular season record and two ALDS series wins against them. The last time the Yankees were in Anaheim, they were swept in the final three games (July 10-12) before the All-Star break. All they’ve done since is go 42-15, and now with Gardner and perhaps Freddy Guzman, they may finally have that edge.