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Looking back at the Yankees’ biggest non-division rivals

From the ‘70s Royals to the current-day Astros, the Yankees have had a few prominent out-of-division rivals.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v New York Yankees, Game 6 Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Yankees fans always have a few rivals on-hand. The hatred for the Boston Red Sox is well-documented, and the crosstown rivalry with the Mets never tames. But, in the spirit of SB Nation’s “Rivalry Week”, who else are the Yankees’ rivals?

Right now, the answer has to be the Houston Astros. The teams have met in the playoffs three times in the last five years, each ending with an Astros victory. The Astros’ cheating scandal has only inflamed the rivalry even more, and it’s a shame we won’t get to see Yankees-Astros matchups this year until the postseason.

If you told a Yankees fan 10 years ago that the team’s biggest rival in 2020 would be the Houston Astros though, they’d probably think you’re crazy. But that’s where we’re at right now, even though the Astros have never been a rival before and may not be in five or 10 years. Turns out, the Yankees have had quite a few of these non-division rivalries over the years, with some of them becoming the defining one of the decade. Let’s take a look back at the Yankees’ other biggest rivalries over history, excluding the AL East and the Mets.

1970s Kansas City Royals

The Royals were to an entire generation of Yankees fans what the Astros are now. A pesky playoff opponent, the Yankees and Royals met in the ALCS four times in the five years from 1976-1980. The Yankees emerged victorious the first three times, winning two World Series along the way, but the small-market Royals finally turned the tables on their rich foes in 1980, a year that ended with the Royals on top. The victories for the Yankees weren’t easy either, with two of the series going the distance, including Chris Chambliss’s walk-off home run in 1976.

The games were often ugly, and featured a lot of bad blood. From Hal McRae taking out Willie Randolph on a slide in the 1977 ALCS to the Graig Nettles- George Brett fight in that same series, or of course the “Pine Tar Game” in 1983, the Yankees and Royals just didn’t get along. The rivalry has simmered for the last 30 years, but was even hotter once upon a time than the Yankees-Astros feud now.

1990s Seattle Mariners

The Mariners looked to be the next incarnation of the Royals, a small-market team that routinely dueled with the Yankees in intense series for the AL Pennant. They got off to a good start in 1995, when the teams put on a show in the first-ever ALDS, which the Mariners took in walk-off fashion in the winner-take-all Game Five. A team that featured Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Bret Boone and later Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners were slated to be the next American League powerhouse.

Of course, the Yankees had other plans. They eliminated the Mariners (who actually had the superior record) in the 2000 ALCS, but Seattle bounced back with a huge 2001 season. After an MLB-record 116 regular season wins, the Mariners were trounced by the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS. The Mariners never rebounded from there – they’ve yet to make the postseason in the 19 years since. Since the turn of the century, the Yankees are 106-69 (.606) against the Mariners, ending the rivalry.

2000s Los Angeles Angels

The then-called Anaheim Angels have one thing to their credit that the Royals and Mariners don’t; they have a winning record in playoff series against the Yankees. The Angels have beaten the Yankees in two of the three times they squared off in the postseason (in 2002 and 2005, but losing in 2009). Beside that, they had the Yankees’ number in the regular season too, going 58-48 against the Yankees in the 2000s and beating the Bombers 60% of the time at Angels Stadium over that span. When I was growing up, the Angels’ Rally Monkey was the ultimate hex over the Yankees.

From 1996-2005, the Yankees made the ALCS in seven of the 10 years. Two of the three times they were eliminated in the first round were courtesy of those pesky Angels, who ended the Yankees’ seasons far too early. In order to get back to the World Series in 2009, it was only fitting the Yankees would have to take out the Angels, and the Bombers got the ultimate revenge with a six-game victory en route to the team’s 27th World Series championship.

The rivalry has cooled as the Angels have been stuck in neutral for much of the last decade; the Angels are just 27-44 against the Yankees since the 2009 ALCS. Perhaps the curse has finally been lifted.

Cleveland Indians Off and On

The Yankees and Indians have had an on-again, off-again rivalry for almost a century. They fought for the AL pennant throughout the 1920s and the 1950s, a period in which the Indians frequently finished second to the Yankees. During the 1970s, the Yankees poached Chambliss and Nettles from the Indians, who went on to play key roles for championship teams. The Indians were perennially one step behind the Yankees.

That has changed a little bit since the Wild Card era, though. The Indians beat the defending champion Yankees in the 1997 ALDS, advancing to the ALCS in one of few blemishes that the dynasty-era Yankees had. The teams met again in the 1998 ALCS, which the Yankees took in six games. The Indians didn’t make much noise again until 2007, when the young team took out the old Yankees in four games in the ALDS, thanks to a swarm of midges.

Ten years later, the Indians got off to a 2-0 series lead against the Yankees in the 2017 ALDS, but the Yankees rallied and pulled off the reverse sweep, winning three elimination games and vanquishing the top-seeded Indians. After the disappointment of losing the 2016 World Series, blowing such a lead against the Yankees the next year did the Indians in – they have not won a playoff game since.