These Yankees look like champs at last

NEW YORK -- On the eve of the American League Division Series, the New York Yankees were burdened by postseason doubt, oh yes they were. In the deepest corner of their competitive soul, where private thoughts are locked behind maximum-security walls, the Yankees suspected exactly what their fan base suspected:

They were not good enough in 2010 to do what they did in 2009.

Joe Girardi and his players never admitted it, and why would they? Professional coaches and athletes are in the business of projecting blind faith in their odds, and any acknowledgment of concern is taken as a sure sign of weakness.

But the Yankees are human, and human nature being what it is, they knew there were times this year, recent times, when they did not look, sound or feel like a championship team any more than the Mets did.

Saturday night changed all that. Playing with a 2-0 series lead that could have inspired apathy and/or lethargy, the Yankees swept the Minnesota Twins into oblivion, beat them by a 6-1 count and for the first time presented a credible case that they will indeed repeat as World Series champs.

"We've turned it on at the right time," a beaming CC Sabathia said in a clubhouse that smelled of champagne.

Phil Hughes was off-the-charts brilliant in his postseason debut as a starter, and the Yankees' offense was good for a dozen hits. So they eliminated the Twins the same way they eliminated them last year -- as quickly as the math and the rules allowed.

"It's good to get it over with," Derek Jeter said while holding his open bottle of Moët & Chandon. "You don't want to give anyone hope."

The Twins were hopeless, as it turned out. If nothing else, they did a hell of a job proving that the Toronto Blue Jays would have won the Central Division. The Twins have no pitching, no power, no speed and no chance to win a postseason game (they've lost 12 in a row, nine to the Yanks) unless Joe Mauer honors the terms of his $184 million deal.

But that's Minnesota's problem. The Yankees don't have to apologize for dominating a small-market team that couldn't hit the ball out of the infield, not when leaner, meaner underdogs (the Angels, Tigers and Indians) had bounced them from the first round in the not-too-distant past.

"A lot of times the five-game series is the toughest one, because you can't make any mental mistakes," Jeter said.

So the Yankees had every right to spray their champagne and party into the small hours of Sunday. Only a week or two ago, they had appeared primed to be one-and-done postseason wonders. They lost eight of their last 11 games, and Girardi wore the body language of a tense, desperate man.

The 2010 Yanks did not give off any of the feel-good karma that radiated about the 2009 Yanks. Everyone in the organization, top to bottom, fretted that it was not meant to be.

In fact, the 2010 Yanks might have reminded some of the old guard of the 1997 edition, another team that had to follow a magical championship run and instead settled for the wild card.

Only these Yankees were not about to let Mauer beat them with one swing of the bat the way Sandy Alomar Jr. beat them in Cleveland 13 years back. This Mariano Rivera, almost 41 years old, is smarter and better than the '97 Rivera.

This Rivera finished off all three victories over the Twins and ended the series by striking out Jim Thome looking, getting Michael Cuddyer to fly out to right and causing Danny Valencia to fly out to left.

When the final out mercifully landed in Brett Gardner's glove, Rivera walked halfway to the plate and into a gentle embrace with Jorge Posada. The Yankees hugged one another but kept the jumping around to a bare minimum.

They did pop the champagne corks and cut loose for a bit in the clubhouse, but the celebration was more subdued than any they had staged around this time last year.

"It feels good," Jeter said, "but we've got a long way to go. We're happy with where we are. We played well, we pitched well, we played good defense and we came up with timely hits.

"If we have that combination, we're going to be tough to beat, and we were tough to beat in this first round."

The captain was proud of the sweep, proud that his team did not relax and fall into the safety net that was Game 4.

"We approached every game like it was Game 5," he said. "It's the mindset. Sometimes the results aren't what you want, but you've got to have the mindset, and everyone in here came here ready to get it over with tonight."

Like Rivera, Posada and Andy Pettitte, Jeter is trying to build a second dynasty to call his own. If this is to be a dynasty in the new building, it's off to a better start than the dynasty in the old building.

Those Yanks didn't win a postseason series in Year 2, and these Yanks just did.

So Sinatra was still in the air past midnight, and the Yankees were back in their October element. Their old bones will have more rest than they'll know what to do with between now and Friday, when their heavyweight, Sabathia, will start throwing his left hooks at Texas or Tampa Bay.

Yes, these Yankees are good enough to go the distance. If they didn't believe it before this series, they are hereby allowed to believe it now.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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