In 2004, a baseball fight between rivals eventually became the galvanizing turning point that propelled the Red Sox to their first championship in eons. After Jason Varitek squared off with Alex Rodriguez in the middle of a game, the Red Sox seemed to be bolstered by their catcher’s fearlessness and heart, eventually winning that game by beating Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. That game was their “believe” moment, as after that game a team that failed to live up to expectations (up to that point) played with an energy, purpose, and conviction.
Speaking of teams that fell below expecations, enter the 2013 Yankees. So far the season hasn’t been half of what they expected it to be: CC Sabathia is 11-10 with a 4.83 ERA; Phil Hughes is 4-12; and Derek Jeter has seen more time on the disabled list that Michael Pineda did in the 2012 Yankee season (that’s a slight exaggeration). Add to that lengthy injuries to their starting 1st baseman, 3rd basemen, backup 1st/3rd baseman, and their starting centerfielder and the season seemed to be a lost one. After Sunday night, that type of talk can no longer be tolerated from those who write about the Yankees. The Yankees played with a fire and unity that hasn’t been seen this season. It was a passion that usually characterizes teams that brand themselves as decidedly anti-Yankees. It was a zeal that made you think that just maybe these guys can find a way into the postseason and be a legitimate threat.
And this fervent brand of baseball started where it should: at the top. With Joe Girardi getting furious that Dempster wasn’t thrown out of the game after throwing at A-Rod 4 times before finally hitting him, the team was fired up. Smallest guy on the roster Bret Gardner was actively pointing and shouting at the other team in defense of A-Rod—the baseball fight equivalent of telling someone to hit you and insulting them—a sign that the Yankees have found some cohesiveness and unity. After A-Rod was plunked the benches cleared and the Yankees stood behind their embattled, controversial 3rd baseman who Brian Cashman won’t even have a conversation with at the moment. Still, later in the game, we saw just how much the bench clearing confrontation (not calling it a brawl) had rallied the Yankees.
A-Rod blasted a home run in excess of 420 feet and was seen chirping at the Red Sox while rounding the bases, only to be later followed by a 3-run triple hit by Gardner. The Yankees scored when they needed to and seemed to be a team that enjoyed each other. This feel-good wave even extended to their Hall of Fame closer who has been on a bit of a skid lately. After adding insurance runs, the Yankees were up 9-6 in the 9th, when Rivera came in to save the game. Sure he allowed two men on base, but he saved the game by have Jarrod Saltalamacchia fly out in the 9th, allowing no runs and putting him right back on track as far as closing out games.
These are the type of games and instances that teams look back on months later and identify as the turning point that changed a season’s goals from breaking .500 to having a shot at winning the championship. These are the games that solidify a team’s mettle and become the spark that a team needs to be great. No, they didn’t take the Red Sox’s best closer and beat him, but they were down by 3 runs at one point with their manager in the showers and their former ace being battered on the mound with the bases loaded. It wasn’t the Red Sox’s best punch, but it was a nasty left hook. The Yankees took it, kept fighting, and resolved to win, spurred by A-Rod’s HBP and Girardi’s ejection. The Yankees did this not just against a rival, they did it against the hated rival who’s leading the division and has one of the best records in all of baseball. They didn’t just do this on a Sunday night, they did it in the rubber game of a three game series that they NEEDED to win just to keep pace in the Wild Card chase…after their real ace was drubbed in the previous game.
I’m not saying that the Yankees will win the World Series, because they have a lot of work to be done in fixing that rotation before getting to the postseason, (if they even get there) but I will say that their win tonight is very similar to the memorable 2004 Red Sox win that I mentioned at the top of the article. Firing each other up, being assured that your teammates support you, (even after allegedly undercutting some of them) and knowing that your manager will always fight for you are key ingredients to creating the type of atmosphere that makes players want to come to the park each day and be around each other. Adversity is unifying and responding to the adversity together in a moving way is powerful, as baseball has shown. If the Yankees can get on a run before adding Jeter, Hafner, and maybe even Youkilis, their ceiling gets dramatically higher, and their success may be traced back to that fateful Sunday night game. We’ll see what Sunday’s win against the Sox will do for the Yankees in the long run.