As the Yankees stumbled through the final month of the season, going 13-17 with a .333 team wOBA and 4.56 team FIP, a division lead that once stood at four games vanished. Joe Girardi took perhaps more criticism than any manager of a playoff team in recent history, as fans and media alike chastised him for what they perceived to be mixed signals. Girardi claimed that he and his team still had their sights set on the division, but the actions often didn’t agree. Whether it was rest for regulars or yet another Chad Gaudin appearance, it just didn’t appear that winning the division was the priority.
In the end the Rays beat the Yanks out for the division, capturing the AL East by just one game on the final day of the season. Some were upset that New York failed to win the division for the second time in three years, others had accepted what seemed like an inevitable fate by then. Instead of starting the playoffs from the comfort of home against the Twins, they were forced to travel to Minnesota and start on the road. The Rays enjoyed some home cooking and had their opponent come to them.
Two weeks after the end of the regular of the season, none of that matters anymore. The Yankees crushed the Twins in the ALDS like the fat kid at the party eating the last piece of birthday cake, and the Rangers pushed the Rays to the limit before defeating them in five games, winning all three games at Tropicana Field. Winning the AL East didn’t hurt the Yanks any more than it helped the Rays. The first two games in the ALCS were then played in Texas, with the Yanks and Rangers winning one each.
So now here we are. After all the criticism and stress of September (and early October), the Yankees in the exact same position they would have been in if they’d won the division in the first place. They’re about to start a best-of-five series against the Rangers with home field advantage in their favor. The only difference is that the first team to win three games goes to the World Series rather than the ALCS. This is it, this is what everyone was rooting for when they wanted the Yanks to go all out to win the division. Everyone upset over settling for the Wild Card got what they wanted anyway, they just had to wait another week.
For a team like the Yankees, one that competes for the World Championship year after year, division titles are nothing more than window dressing. It’s nice in a “hey look at us” kind of way, but it’s just step one of the process. Instead of focusing on that goal, Girardi set his team up to be in the best possible position for the postseason, and so far it’s worked. They’ve won four of five playoff games despite playing just once at home, and everyone is as healthy and able to contribute as can be. For all the flack he took, there’s no arguing now that his moves last month were the right ones, Wild Card team or not.
No one remembers division titles, but they all remember World Championships.