CLEVELAND — The New York Yankees of the mid-to-late 1990s have acquired their own mythology. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada and the rest of the dynastic Yankees seem, through the lens of the present, to have emerged fully formed as a colossus. Brian Cashman has a different perspective, because he witnessed them come together. “That team,” Cashman said, “was young, too, at one point.”
The common refrain has it that the current Yankees have arrived ahead of schedule. Maybe that’s true in part. For Cashman and for the rest of the Yankees, both the Baby Bombers and ancient pinstripers such as CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner, they have arrived, period. They’re here, among the final four teams standing in a season flush with uncommonly great teams, with a sole expectation: While they have a chance, win the World Series.
“ ‘Arriving early’ implies some guarantee of arriving in the future,” Cashman said. “I’ve been around the block long enough to know, listen, you just seize the moment.”
The Yankees will not face the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series as wide-eyed overachievers. They leave their stunning comeback victory in Game 5 of the AL Division Series over the Cleveland Indians as a threat to hoist the trophy in late October. They have a powerful lineup, a blend of powerful youth and gutty experience and, most important, a bullpen that will not quit.
The bullpen, in this era of playoff baseball, makes the Yankees perhaps the most dangerous team remaining. In six postseason games, their bullpen has performed miracles. It recorded 26 outs and allowed one run after starter Luis Severino fell behind, 3-0, before he could record a second out in the wild-card game. It closed out Game 5 for 4 2/3 innings.
Yankees relievers have allowed 10 earned runs in 29 1/3 innings while striking out 42 in this postseason. Remove the ill-fated performance of Chad Green in Game 2 of the ALDS, when a phantom hit-by-pitch call victimized him, and the Yankees’ bullpen has a 2.17 ERA with 13.03 strikeouts per nine innings.
“They get a lead, man, they’re capable of going as far as they want,” Indians outfielder Jay Bruce said. “You kind of feel whoever gets to the bullpen with a lead first is in pretty good shape.”
“It’s incredible,” Sabathia said. “It’s the best I’ve ever seen. We’ve got four or five closers down there.”
The Yankees may have qualified for the playoffs as a wild card, but they are part of the raft of “superteams,” to use Cashman’s phrase, dominating the playoffs. The Yankees finished the season with the second-best run differential in baseball, behind only the Indians, and won 91 games.
The Yankees are cast in these playoffs as an upstart. They sold off Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann and shed Alex Rodriguez last season. But they re-signed Chapman in free agency, and when young stars Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez led the Yankees to a strong start, Cashman added reinforcements with aggression, dealing prospects for Todd Frazier, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson.
By the end of the season, they mixed experience and huge talent that had matured quickly, with a monstrous bullpen on top. Their starting pitching surged in the ALDS, with inconsistent Masahiro Tanaka throwing bowling-ball splitters, Severino bouncing back in a Game 4 victory and Sabathia whiffing nine in Game 5. If their starters continue to pitch into even the middle innings, they can beat the Astros.
“They have a lot of talent,” Miller said. “They have a pocketbook that, they can go out and get things that make them better. I was there in spring training. I saw it. They were talented.”
“Nobody really expected us to be here,” Gardner said. “In spring training, I think we were expected to be about a .500 team and be a rebuilding year. I think everybody kind of wrote us off early. We’ve got a couple veteran guys on the team, but a lot of these young guys have just arrived on the scene.”
It is difficult to recognize the start of something as it happens, to pinpoint a beginning without the benefit of hindsight. But Wednesday night felt like one of those moments. The Yankees have so much talent they could knock off the 102-win Indians even with Judge, their MVP candidate and No. 2 hitter, setting a record by striking out 16 times in a playoff series.
In the Yankees’ clubhouse, it did not feel like a beginning. It was, as Gardner said, “a little step along the way.” These Yankees have big ambitions. Someday, maybe, someone will say they were young once, too.