After winning their third straight World Series in 2000 and fourth in five years, the Yankees returned to the World Series in the weeks following 9/11, ready to extend their era of dominance into the new millennium. But it turned out to be the beginning of the end of the most glorious era in Yankees history.
That’s not to say the 2000s were a disaster by any means. The Yankees added two AL pennants to their collection, including a victory in arguably the hardest-fought ALCS of all time and which etched Aaron Boone’s name in Yankees and Red Sox history. But despite a small army of big names making their way to the Bronx — Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Kenny Lofton, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon, and Kei Igawa — the Yankees struggled to replicate their postseason success of the 1990s.
After losing the 2003 World Series, the Yankees dropped the 2004 ALCS in a historically painful fashion, then suffered three straight first-round exits before missing the playoffs completely in 2008. In that same timespan, division rivals made the World Series three times (2004, 2007, 2008), winning twice. For those of us born during the dynasty years, we had witnessed more failure and heartbreak than success.
With an aging core and multiple key pieces set to hit free agency, the Yankees went all-in on the 2009 season, eager to christen the new stadium with a championship after failing to give the old one a proper postseason sendoff.
Regular Season Record: 103-59
Manager: Joe Girardi
Top Hitter by WAR: Derek Jeter (6.6)
Top Pitcher by WAR: CC Sabathia (6.2)
World Series: Yankees defeat Phillies, 4-2
Mussina’s retirement and the departures of Giambi, Abreu, Pavano and Iván Rodríguez cleared $89 million in payroll, which the Yankees put to good use by signing three of the biggest free agents on the market: pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira. Additionally, they flipped utility infielder Wilson Betemit to the Chicago White Sox for first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher. This spending spree would prove to be integral to the Yankees.
If you look at the Yankees’ end-of-season stats, you would be forgiven for thinking that the 2009 Yankees simply walked all over their opponents. They boasted the league’s best lineup, leading the American League in OPS+ (114), runs/game (5.65), home runs (244), walks (663), and hits (1,604). Eight of the nine starters had an OPS+ over 121, with center fielders Brett Gardner (87) and Melky Cabrera (94) being the sole exceptions out of players who received regular playing time. The pitching staff, meanwhile, ranked in the top five of the AL in ERA (4.26), FIP (4.32), WHIP (1.352), and K/BB (2.20). They finished eight games up in the AL East, ahead of the second-place Red Sox, with six more wins than any other team in baseball.
The 2009 season, however, began as an unmitigated disaster. First, the offseason controversy surrounding Rodriguez, who admitted early in spring training to using performance-enhancing drugs as a member of the Texas Rangers, extended into the season, as further reports alleged that he had been taking steroids as far back as high school. Meanwhile, A-Rod began the year out with a hip injury that required surgery, making his first start on May 8th. Jorge Posada and Opening Day right fielder Xavier Nady also hit the shelf, with the latter suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Despite strong performances from Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang — the 2006 Cy Young runner up who was intended to be the Yankees’ No. 2 starter — struggled, the beginning of the end of his career, as did the entire bullpen not named Mariano Rivera. After being swept at the hands of the Red Sox from April 24th to the 26th, the Yankees fell to 9-9.
Over the course of May and June, Girardi’s squad would start to right the ship, with A-Rod’s return to the lineup and a walk-off weekend against Minnesota providing a jolt. Phil Hughes, David Robertson, and Alfredo Aceves did yeoman’s work reinforcing the middle of the bullpen. However, the team had still not gotten into gear, leading Brian Cashman to travel to Atlanta to meet with the team on the road. The following day, the Yankees limped out to 1-0 deficit, as Braves starter Kris Medlen shut down the first 15 batters in order. Gardner opened the fifth with a walk, but was immediately picked off on a questionable call that resulted in manager Joe Girardi getting ejected.
Rookie catcher Francisco Cervelli then decided to tie the game with the Yankees’ first hit of the game — and the first home run of his career.
The Yankees would go on to win the game, 8-4. More importantly, they caught fire, going 26-10 over the next six weeks, including an eight-game win streak after the All-Star break. Because of this, when the Red Sox came to town on August 6th for a critical four-game set, the Yankees had a 2.5 game lead in the division. Despite losing their first eight games against Boston in 2009, they absolutely battered their rivals, sweeping them by a combined score of 25-8 with two shutouts. New York never looked back, clinching the division title with a win over the Red Sox on September 27th, their 100th victory of the year — notably, it was also their ninth win against Boston, all of which had occurred in the final two months of the season.
When October rolled around, the Yankees were matched up with their traditional ALDS opponents, the Minnesota Twins. Accordingly, they swept them three straight, including an extra-inning comeback win keyed by A-Rod’s ninth-inning homer against All-Star closer Joe Nathan.
New York followed that up by avenging their previous two playoff losses to the Los Angeles Angels by dispatching them in six. Two electric starts from ALCS MVP CC Sabathia led the way, including an eight-inning gem on three days’ rest in Game 4. Rivera wrapped up Game 6 with a strikeout of Gary Matthews Jr. to secure the franchise’s 40th AL pennant.
The Yankees then came face-to-face with the defending champs, the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a matchup filled to the brim with storylines. The 2008-2009 Phillies were the first team since the 1998-2001 Yankees to make consecutive appearances in the World Series. Sabathia and Phillies ace Cliff Lee had both been teammates in Cleveland — Sabathia had been the biggest name on the market the previous winter, while Lee had dominated the 2009 trade deadline. Former Red Sox ace Pedro Martínez, furthermore, had joined Philadelphia’s staff in August. The Yankees were going with a three-man rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte, while the Phillies relied on a four-man staff that they hoped would cover up a porous bullpen.
Philadelphia jumped out to an early lead in the series, as Lee outdueled Sabathia to win 6-1 in a game that was much closer than the final score would indicate (the Yankees ace left in the eighth with just a 2-0 deficit). Lee had made it look easy, but the Yankees tied the series against Martínez in Game 2. Burnett’s seven innings and Rivera’s two kept the Phillies to just one run, while a pair of homers from Teixeira and Matsui helped power the Yankees offense to three runs.
The Yankees took the first game in Philadelphia, 8-5, overcoming an early 3-0 deficit to take a 2-1 lead in the series. Pitching on three days’ rest, Sabathia outdueled Joe Blanton in Game 4, but Joba Chamberlain allowed a home run to Pedro Feliz to tie it up. Johnny Damon, however, bailed out his pitcher. After singling in a nine-pitch at-bat, the speedy outfielder stole second base and, noticing that third base was uncovered because the Phillies were employing the shift on Teixeira, took third on the same play.
Damon’s presence on third in a tie game took away Brad Lidge’s best pitch, and after Teixeira got plunked, A-Rod doubled him in to give the Yankees the lead — Posada followed that up with a two-run single to extend it to 7-4. In the bottom of the inning, Rivera shut down Matt Stairs, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino on eight pitches to put the Yankees within one win of the title.
Burnett struggled while Lee shut down the Yankees in Game 5 to force a Game 6 and send the series back to the Bronx. Entering the game, the main story was the matchup between Pettitte and Martínez. The real story of the night, however, turned out to be Matsui.
We didn’t know it at the time, but in what would be his final game in pinstripes, the DH reminded everyone why he had the nickname Godzilla, driving in six runs on three hits and ending a triple shy of the cycle. He opened the scoring in the second with a two-run home run, before adding on two more the following inning with a two-run, bases-loaded single that scored Jeter and Damon. In the fifth, Matsui doubled off reliever Chad Durbin, plating Rodriguez and Teixeira to reach six RBI on the night.
That mark tied a record for runs driven in during a World Series game, set by fellow Yankee Bobby Richardson in 1960. On the back of this performance, he received the 2009 World Series MVP Award.
Handed a 7-3 lead by Pettitte after 5.2 innings of work, the Yankees bullpen shut the door on the Phillies, with Chamberlain and Damaso Marte bridging the middle innings to get the ball to Rivera with one out in the eighth. The closer allowed two baserunners, a Raúl Ibañez double in the eighth and a Carlos Ruiz walk in the ninth, but that proved to be too little, too late. Shane Victorino grounded out on a 3-2 pitch to second baseman Robinson Canó for the final out, and once again, the New York Yankees were champions.
And here, unfortunately, is where our Champions Series comes to a close. Despite dreams of a new dynasty, the 2010 team lost the ALCS in six to the Rangers, and Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer’s Tigers downed them in five in the 2011 ALDS and swept them in the 2012 ALCS. Suddenly, the window was closed.
Although the Yankees never finished below .500, it would be five years before a new window, that of the Baby Bombers, would open. Led by Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, that group of Yankees have yet to add another ring to the pile.