A week ago various questions existed for the Yankees, at least beyond the clubhouse doors.
There were questions such as where the Yankees would play their divisional series games and inquiries about whether playing sub-.500 during September would translate to the postseason.
There also were questions about what would happen on the mound during nights when CC Sabathia was not the starting pitcher.
Those questions also served as motivation and the belief inside the clubhouse was rewarded last night when Phil Hughes pitched seven dominant innings as the Yankees advanced to the AL Championship Series with a 6-1 victory over the Twins.
“That was kind of the word going around. We knew what we had. We know we’re capable of throwing the ball well,” Hughes said. “Obviously CC carries us, but we have some pretty formidable guys behind him.”
“It is gratifying; when everyone doubts you – that’s certainly motivation.”
Hughes pitched with conviction and eradicated himself of any initial jitters after retiring the first hitter. He retired the first nine and allowed four hits while efficiently throwing 99 pitches.
And in the rare instances trouble surrounded the mound, Hughes quickly disposed of it, doing so in the fifth and sixth while protecting a five-run lead.
With first and second and one out in the fifth, Hughes struck out Michael Cuddyer for the second out. After getting Danny Valencia to swing at ball four, Hughes ended the inning with a weak pop-out to first.
“I was really impressed,” manager Joe Girardi said.
In the sixth, Hughes gave up two-out singles to Orlando Hudson and Joe Mauer. The threat stopped there as Hughes blew a fastball past Jason Kubel for a swinging strike three.
Hughes’ outing came on the heels of Andy Pettitte erasing concerns about poor results in three post-DL starts by pitching seven outstanding innings in Game 2.
Regardless of what was said outside the clubhouse in newspapers, talk radios, blogs and other mediums, none of it mattered to those occupying the clubhouse.
What mattered was that October is here and the regular season is finished, which is the message Derek Jeter conveyed in a team meeting before the series.
“That 162-game schedule was just practice,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He said practice is over. We were under .500 in September, so what.”
Just like Hughes came out throwing with conviction, so did the Yankee bats. Instead of posting another comeback victory over the Twins, the Yankees scored early and took the lead in the second, added two in the third and put it away with three in the fourth.
They were aware of the perils of having a chance to sweep and not finishing it, plus they also wanted to enjoy a Sunday of watching football.
“We didn’t look at it like three games to win one,” Mark Teixeira said. “We wanted to win today. It showed early.”
“That is exactly what we were talking about it,” Nick Swisher added. “When you come in a five-game series, there’s no messing around. So to be able here and be able to celebrate in front of home fans – it’s a great feeling.”
The great feelings that the Yankees were going to win began early when Robinson Cano tripled and scored on Jorge Posada’s single with one out in the second. The positive vibes continued in the third when Teixeira drove in Swisher with base hit to left.
The mood began to turn even more electric in the fourth when Marcus Thames hit a first-pitch fastball into the right field seats for a two-run home run. After Curtis Granderson scored on a Brett Gardner sacrifice fly, it became a matter of watching Hughes protect the lead and count down the outs.
“The guys in the clubhouse, they believe in each other,” Thames said. “That’s what we had the whole season, so we never doubted anybody and everybody stepped up.”