Underdog Yanks must play like favorites

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees are not Virginia Commonwealth, and Joe Girardi is not Shaka Smart. But somehow, March madness has descended on the Bronx, featuring the home team as the sport's first mid-major to offer nearly $200 million in full rides.

"We can just sneak up on some people," CC Sabathia said.

Welcome to the cute little campus of the zillion-to-one underdog, formerly known as the House that Ruthless People Built. Yankee Stadium no longer is an outsized monument to tradition, power and greed.

It's Gene Hackman's gym in "Hoosiers."

Sneak up on people? The New York Yankees are supposed to sneak up on people the way a freight train does.

"It sounds crazy," Sabathia said some 24 hours before his Opening Day start against Detroit, "just because of the talent level that we have in here and what we've done in the past. But nobody's picking us, so we've got to go out and prove ourselves."

Sabathia immediately moved to amend his stated claim by declaring that somebody is indeed picking the Yankees -- Carsten Charles Sabathia himself. This wasn't exactly Joe Namath answering a heckler at the Miami Touchdown Club with the guarantee to end all guarantees, nor was it Mark Messier pulling a rabbit out of his hat trick by promising a season-saving victory over the Devils and, ultimately, the end of a 54-year championship drought.

But this was the Yankees' best pitcher throwing a fastball past the Red Sox and toward his good bud Cliff Lee on the other side of the aisle in Philly. Asked whether he was picking the Yankees to merely defeat a favored Boston team in the American League East or whether he was picking a deferred sequel to 2009, Sabathia said, "That's to win the whole thing.

"I wouldn't show up if I didn't believe that. I played on plenty of teams where the season was over before it even started, so I wanted to come here to have a chance to win every year. I definitely believe we have a chance to win this year."

Yes, the Yankees sure do have a chance. A little wear and tear might conspire against them, but they still do employ an ace's ace at the top of the rotation, the greatest closer of all time, maybe the greatest slugger of all time, one of the two or three greatest all-around shortstops of all time and a second baseman with a swing prettier than Joe DiMaggio's.

And at day's end, it's hard to feel even a bit sorry for a team with a $35 million setup guy.

So the Yankees aren't VCU or Butler or any lovable long shot from here to Lake Placid. No Cliff Lee and no Andy Pettitte still adds up to no excuses.

This team has to make the playoffs. If the Yankees fail to qualify, it would be an unmitigated disaster in every conceivable way.

George Steinbrenner surely would have agreed. As the Yanks showed up at their lockers Wednesday, they were greeted by a portrait of the late "Boss" looking up at them from their chairs -- Steinbrenner graced the cover of the team's yearbook.

His annual mission statement of winning it all remains intact even if Brian Cashman spent the offseason pumping up the reconfigured Red Sox and even if Girardi spent part of a workout day in the Bronx embracing the notion that the Yanks might be the not-so-little engine that could.

Girardi said he hadn't heard his players address the prevailing wisdom that Boston is the class of the division but added, "If that's what the talk did, of us being the underdog, that's not a bad thing."

Girardi went on to explain the benefits of managing a clubhouse full of Yanks who aren't expected to finish the season in the Canyon of Heroes. "Maybe guys don't feel the weight of the expectations as much," he said. "Sometimes when you're the underdog, you can kind of go under the radar a little bit."

Under the radar?

The New York Yankees are the radar.

But the man charged to take the Opening Day ball against Detroit, Sabathia, said more than once that his team, the team with the game's highest payroll year after year after year, is one that will have to "sneak up on some people."

As a catcher back in the dynasty days, Girardi acknowledged the sentiment sounded strange. "I've been here since '96," he said, "and I don't remember anyone using those words."

On the same day "The Captain," Derek Jeter, was moved from leadoff to the two-hole, at least against righties the likes of Justin Verlander, Sabathia was the Yank who made the loudest noise. He hadn't created this kind of stir since he strongly hinted he would be opting out of his $161 million contract in the fall.

"Nobody seems to believe in us but us," Sabathia said. "I don't think it bothers anybody. I actually find it kind of funny, just given what we've done.

"We won [95] ballgames last year; our team hasn't changed that much, so we can't get any worse. We'll go out and play the way we played last year and see what happens."

The Yankees would have preferred to take their chances with Lee and Pettitte in the rotation spots now occupied by Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. But losing out on a couple of high-end lefties while a healthier Boston loaded up with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford doesn't allow the Yanks the long shot's luxury of pressure-free competition.

Girardi's talent and Cashman's payroll belong in the tournament, no ifs, ands or buts about it. What if the Yankees can't even win the wild card?

They will go down as a Hollywood-sized bust, not as a game but undermanned mid-major that got picked off by a higher seed.