Even the most optimistic Yankees fan in New York had to have a moment on Thursday night or Friday morning when they flashed to the image of the Boston Red Sox celebrating on the Yankee Stadium field in October 2004. The Yankees are coming back to New York, leading the ALCS 3-2 and reeling after a late loss left questions about the fitness of their manager and bullpen to deal with adverse situations. If that doesn't raise at least one hair on the back of your neck, you weren't here for '04 or you're willfully ignoring the similarities.
That's the scary thing about playoff baseball. It's not like a seven-game series in the NBA, where the same eight or nine players on each side play exactly the same roles in games that unfold in predictable patterns to be decided by the whims of the referees or the shooting touch of two or three players charged with that role. Playoff baseball is all about starting pitching and the last time the Yankees were in this position, needing to win one of three games, they couldn't pull it off in large part because they got outpitched.
That may be the best reason for fans to keep their 2004 revisited fears from cropping up again. If the Yankees do get pushed to a seventh game, they have CC Sabathia waiting to pitch it, which puts them in a lot better position than they were when Kevin Brown trotted to the mound to help the Sox end their many years of suffering at the hands of the Bombers. And that's even if it gets there. It's hard not to feel pretty good about the matchup on Sunday that pits Andy Pettitte against Joe Saunders. Saunders pitched very well in Game 2, but it's hard to pull that kind of thing off twice against this Yankee lineup and Pettitte has been in these kinds of situations since junior high schoolers were in diapers.
Another reason why Yankees fans shouldn't get too panicked just yet is that the Angels haven't done what the Red Sox did in Game 4 of that series. They haven't beaten Mariano Rivera and created a chink in the armor of the greatest protective blanket that the game has ever known. They've had their chances, most notably during a bases loaded situation in Game 3, but Rivera has come out on top each time. It's always dangerous to veer too far off the field when analyzing these things, but there's none of the karmic power buffetting the wings of the Angels that there was for the Red Sox in 2004. Beating Rivera made it seem, even in a tie game down three games, that this was their time. You don't have that feeling about the Angels.
In fact, if anyone's due it's Alex Rodriguez. While it would make a fitting chapter in his life story if the rest of the team fell flat when he finally produced in the postseason, he's still the only horse in this race with a claim to the kind of metaphysical treasures that the Red Sox tapped into during their comeback in 2004. It's been a long time since the Yankees have had something like that on their side, which is as good a reason as any to stop thinking about 2004 and enjoy the rest of the ride.