New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi never admitted it, but there were many rumblings that his club coasted down the stretch, purely satisfied with the American League wild card berth as opposed to the division crown.
The intent, it seems, was twofold. For one, the wild card winner would be paired with the Minnesota Twins, a team the Yankees simply own. Two, there would be no Cliff Lee standing in front of New York's quest for a crown until the second round.
Whatever observers think of the supposed plan, which forces the Yanks to open every series on the road, it has worked like a charm. In fact, it may have panned out better than Girardi could've imagined. As Lee's Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays went the distance in their first-round matchup, the Bronx Bombers were smiling their off-days away.
Not only did the Yankees claim their customary sweep of the Twins and earn five days of rest, but because the other ALDS went five games, Lee was forced to go twice, including the sparkling Tuesday-night finale. That means that the lefty will not go until Game 3 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium and he will see the New Yorkers a maximum of two times in the best-of-seven set.
Those are odds any team would take given the prospect of facing a guy who is building an unparalleled postseason resume.
With an 11-strikeout, complete-game win over the Rays on Tuesday night, Lee is now 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA in seven postseason starts, sporting a phenomenal 54 strikeouts against six walks in 56 1/3 innings. Although the sample size may be a bit less than other postseason heroes, Lee has a body of work that can support a claim that he is the best playoff starter in baseball history.
And the Yankees will face him just once in the first six games of the ALCS, in all likelihood. Indeed, New York's lackluster effort down the stretch in the regular season and a comeback by the Rays to force a decisive Game 5 have teamed together to create a perfect scenario for Girardi's crew.
If Lee stays on regular rest, he can go in Game 7 at home and foil the Yankees' best-laid plans. But based on where the Bronx Bombers could've been if they had won the division, they will take such a scenario.