Yankees set to exorcize demons

When Derek Jeter recalls the last time the New York Yankees got this close to the World Series, he gets chills down his spine that have nothing to do with the cold he’s fighting.

New York Yankees' Derek Jeter stretches during baseball practice in Anaheim

ANAHEIM, Calif. — When Derek Jeter recalls the last time the New York Yankees got this close to the World Series, he gets chills down his spine that have nothing to do with the cold he’s fighting.

“If you have the opportunity to get something over with, you’d like to do it,” the New York captain said. “It’s not always going to happen.”

Although the Yankees have a strong record in potential closeout playoff games over their peerless history, the 2004 AL championship series is a prodigious hole in their reputation that only a record 40th AL pennant could begin to cover. Up 3-0, New York lost four straight to the Boston Red Sox in an unprecedented collapse, and the Yankees hadn’t been that close to the World Series since — until now.

They get the first of three shots at a closeout victory over the struggling Angels in Game 5 of the ALCS tonight, with A.J. Burnett facing Los Angeles ace John Lackey.

After half a decade and several hundred million dollars’ worth of premium free-agent shopping, most of the Yankees who have rolled through six wins in their first seven post-season games this fall don’t share Jeter’s memories of 2004.

Manager Joe Girardi understands the history, but prefers to focus on the future.

“There’s a lot of different faces,” Girardi said. “You look at our rotation, CC (Sabathia) wasn’t here, A.J. wasn’t here. You look at the bullpen, and I believe Mo (Mariano Rivera) was the only guy that was here. It’s a different scenario, but we understand who the Angels are.”

Before a light workout at sunny Angel Stadium on Wednesday, Girardi and the Yankees were modest about their chances of getting that last win and steaming back onto baseball’s biggest stage after a six-year absence. Their play in this post-season so far has done all their bragging for them.

With big-money newcomers Sabathia and Burnett joining Andy Pettitte in a dynamite three-man rotation, backed by 2004 survivor Alex Rodriguez leading the offence, the current Yankees have shown no indication of slowing down.

After they missed the playoffs last fall for the first time in Jeter’s era, the Yankees have racked up baseball’s best record before rolling to the brink of a pennant against the Angels, who were second-best behind New York in the regular-season standings.

“Well, any time you can add the top three free agents, it’s going to be better,” outfielder Johnny Damon deadpanned. “(Sabathia, Burnett and Mark Teixeira) took us from missing the playoffs by six games last year to being pretty dominant.”

The Yankees have held a 3-1 lead in an ALCS six times since Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte and Jorge Posada joined the roster in the mid-1990s. New York closed it out immediately three times, waited for the sixth game once — and then there was 2004.

But these Yankees are well positioned to capitalize on their three chances to finish off Los Angeles. Nothing in the ALCS to date suggests the Yankees’ pitchers will have much trouble with the Angels, whose normally productive lineup is batting .201 against New York.

After a 10-1 rout in Game 4, it’s also tough to imagine New York’s sluggers slowing down. Rodriguez, Jeter and Posada are in the midst of outstanding post-seasons, and the Yankees have 14 homers among their 67 hits in seven playoff games.

“It’s like every day, you’re looking to somebody to your right or left and saying, ‘Do you believe this guy?”’ Burnett said. “‘I mean, have you ever seen a guy like this guy?’ That’s a handful of guys on this team. I’ve played with some good players, but it’s like the guys on this squad, when the stage gets bigger and the situation gets bigger, they perform better. It never ceases to amaze me what can happen.”

Six of 28 teams in the Angels’ position have rallied from a 3-1 deficit in a league championship series — most recently in 2007, when the Boston Red Sox came back against Sabathia and Cleveland on the way to a title. Including the World Series, 11 of 69 teams that fell into a 3-1 hole have made the comeback.

“The mountain is big, period,” Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. “But we know baseball can turn around at any time. We’ve been wanting that since our first game (against the Yankees). We haven’t quite got there yet, but it’s getting late. That bell is about to ring, so it’s time to get it done.”

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