END OF THE IN­NO­CENCE

In New York minute, Baby Bombers won’t be caught in fast lane

New York Post - - SPORTS - Joel Sher­man joel.sher­man@ny­post.com

HOUS­TON — En­joy this, Yan­kees. Re­ally. Th­ese are the fi­nal days of the in­no­cence, the last weeks in which you can float on the com­fort­ing pil­low of be­ing un­der­dogs.

Next sea­son you go back to your his­toric role. Fa­vorites. Over­dogs. Cham­pi­onship or bust. An­i­mos­ity and jeal­ousy in ev­ery city.

You might want to ask Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill and Bernie Wil­liams what it was like go­ing from 1996 to 1997. For 1996 was a gift. The team was not viewed as a cham­pi­onship like­li­hood. The Ori­oles had won the off­sea­son, among other things im­port­ing Roberto Alo­mar, Randy My­ers and David Wells. Heck, the Yan­kees nearly traded a failed starter named Mar­i­ano Rivera in spring for Felix Fer­min be­cause they were so un­sure Jeter could han­dle be­ing the start­ing short­stop.

They played in a World Se­ries against the defending cham­pion Braves and were so throt­tled in the first two games at home that Ge­orge Stein­bren­ner was hop­ing for just one vic­tory to avoid hu­mil­i­a­tion.

Those ’96 Yan­kees never lost again, pulled off the stun­ner. But by the time the vic­tory pa­rade up the Canyon of He­roes was com­plete — all the con­fetti, all the mar­riage pro­pos­als for Jeter, all the joy for the ti­tle that no one could see com­ing in March — the world had changed. Play­ers trans­formed into stars be­ing se­duced by book­ers on Let­ter­man and Madi­son Av­enue.

For the rest of the Core Four era, they would be over­dogs im­bued with the pres­sure of win it all or the sea­son was mean­ing­less. The Age of Pin­stripe In­no­cence was dead.

This 2017 team was not ex­pected to win, not even pre­dicted to make the play­offs. The Red Sox had won the off­sea­son, namely by land­ing Chris Sale. Heck, the Yan­kees did not know un­til the fi­nal week that Aaron Judge would even win the right-field job over Aaron Hicks.

They played the defending AL cham­pion In­di­ans in the Di­vi­sion Se­ries and went down 0-2, los­ing in such dev­as­tat­ing fash­ion in Game 2 that even a sin­gle vic­tory in the best-of-five would feel some­what face-sav­ing.

But the Yan­kees won out, some­how kept their nar­ra­tive as the $200 mil­lion Lit­tle Engine That Could.

They al­ready have up­set one 100-plus-win team in the top-seeded In­di­ans. Now, they again will cede home-field ad­van­tage, this time to the 101-win Astros, who al­ready van­quished the team that out­paced the Yan­kees in the AL East, the Red Sox.

The Yan­kees are try­ing to be­come the sixth team to de­feat two triple-digit-vic­tory teams in the same post­sea­son. The most re­cent to do it were the 2004 Red Sox, who ral­lied from 0-3 down in the ALCS to beat the 101-win Yan- kees be­fore sweep­ing the 105-win Car­di­nals in the World Se­ries.

A Yan­kees team has done this. The 2001 ver­sion re­bounded from 0-2 down to best the 102-win A’s in the Di­vi­sion Se­ries be­fore beat­ing the AL reg­u­lar-sea­son-win-record 116-vic­tory Mariners, in the ALCS.

No team has ever beaten three triple-digit-win teams in the same post­sea­son, which is pos­si­ble for the Yan­kees, should they elim­i­nate the Astros and the 104-win Dodgers in the World Se­ries.

But no mat­ter how this sea­son ends now — val­ley of de­spair or Canyon of He­roes — the Yan­kees will never be the same, like they weren’t af­ter 1996. Jeter won AL Rookie of the Year, as surely as Judge will. The sense is an­other Core Four is afoot for the Yan­kees — per­haps a Core Five or Six, even.

The Yan­kees are a year early on the re­build plan and now, mov­ing for­ward, the de­mands will be di­vi­sion ti­tles and cham­pi­onships — or bust. They will re­turn to Tampa next Fe­bru­ary no mat­ter how this sea­son ends viewed as a loom­ing giant, which will only take an­other el­e­va­tion level should they ac­tu­ally sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado af­ter the 2019 sea­son.

So they should en­joy this ride as un­ex­pected es­cape artists with four wins al­ready in elim­i­na­tion games. They should ap­pre­ci­ate that some­how they have got­ten to this point with Luis Sev­erino last­ing just one out in the wild-card game against the Twins, Judge go­ing 1-for-20 with 16 strike­outs in the Di­vi­sion Se­ries and their DHs a col­lec­tive 0-for-20 in six play­off games.

They have some magic about them — some un­der­dog magic. This, 2017, will be the last time for a while we can say that about the Yan­kees.

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