End the debate, Yanks can win No. 28

The 2012 New York Yankees season can be summed up in one slightly moldy but still valid line: Don't tell me about the labor pains, just show me the baby.

The Yankees went through plenty of trials and tribulations to get to where they arrived at Wednesday night, but when they delivered the baby -- the AL East title -- it was every bit as beautiful as if they had cruised home with the 10-game lead they were enjoying back in July.

In truth, the surprise of this season lies not in where the Yankees finished -- with 95 wins and two games ahead of the stubborn but ultimately overmatched Baltimore Orioles -- but the journey they took to get there.

But now, the journey is over and a new one begins.

And the way the Yankees are playing right now, there is really no legitimate reason why they shouldn't make it out of the American League, at the very least, and into their 41st World Series. They might even force Joe Girardi to change his number by coming home with their 28th championship.

Because everything that happened before -- the 10-game lead, the losing of that same lead, the relentless challenge of the Orioles and the seesawing back and forth through most of September before they were finally able to put some separation between themselves and their pursuers in the final two games of the season -- is now about as relevant as CC Sabathia's cholesterol count.

For the Second Season, or what team president Randy Levine called "the real goal" after the Yankees put an exclamation point on their season with a 14-2 blowout of the pathetic Boston Red Sox in the season finale, the Yankees are coming in perhaps as good as they have been all season.

Suddenly, everyone is healthy. The bullpen is rested. The starting rotation has sorted itself out. And the lineup is anchored by the hottest hitter in baseball not named Miguel Cabrera.

Robby Cano cannot do it alone, of course, and for the Yankees to finish this season the way they want to, certain things are going to have to happen. Like for instance, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are going to have to show opposing managers that it is not OK to walk Cano every time up, and Nick Swisher is going to finally have to hit in October the way he hits for much of the regular season, and the lineup as a whole is going to have to figure out a way to generate runs without hitting the ball out of the park, because home runs generally are at a premium in the postseason.

Sabathia is going to have to continue to pitch the way he has in his three most recent starts and not the four that preceded them. Same goes for Hiroki Kuroda, who looked terrific Wednesday night but ordinary for much of September.

They are going to need Rafael Soriano to have the kind of October they could normally expect out of Mariano Rivera, and David Robertson to escape from the handcuffs on a nightly basis, as he did last year and at times this year, and they need the rest of their overworked bullpen to get them through the seventh, and some nights, the sixth inning.

In short, they are going to have to keep playing the way they have over the final 18 games of the season, in which they pulled it together to go 14-4, the best record in the league down the stretch.

All they have to do now is win seven of their next 12 games to get to the World Series, and 11 of their next 19 to win it all.

For a team that wound up playing .586 ball (95-67), playing .578 ball the rest of the way doesn't seem like too much to ask.

"This has been the toughest without a question," Rodriguez said of the Yankees' rocky playoff run. "I don't think we've ever come down to 162 not knowing. I think hopefully it pays dividends for us. It did this weekend, and I think it will in October."

There were times, midseason, when this team showed its age and it was not a pretty sight. But in the end, a team that looked "old" when it was losing became "experienced" at precisely the right time.

Most remarkably, despite going toe-to-toe with the Orioles for the final month of the season -- between Sept. 3 and October 3 the two teams were tied for first on 10 different days, and at no time did more than 1½ games ever separate the two -- the Yankees never fell into second place.

In fact, they maintained a share of first place in the AL East from June 11 to the end of the season, despite a two-month stretch in which they went 24-29.

"They're a very resilient group that takes pride in what they do and are used to winning," Girardi said. "It's not easy to do what these guys did. But they just expect to win."

And now, with a 19-game season in front of them, we should expect them to win, too.

No doubt, this road will be tough -- personally, I think the Orioles would be an easier ALDS opponent than the Texas Rangers, because of the Rangers' pitching staff and in spite of their late-season swoon -- and the path is complicated by MLB's screwy playoff format this season in which the teams that worked so hard to earn the top two seeds, the Yankees and Oakland Athletics -- will be forced to play the first two playoff games on the road.

But no matter. This is a team with an abundance of talent that hasn't always performed up to its capabilities but found a way, as all the best teams do, at the moment it needed to the most.

"It's a great feeling because it has been a grind," Girardi said. "It has not been an easy season. You look at some of the injuries we went through, some of the up and downs, you would have never thought we would win 95 games. We end up with the best record in the American League -- and that's not easy -- and we had a tough schedule. It's really rewarding; these guys did a tremendous job."

That sounds an awful lot like describing the labor pains. But in spite of them, the Yankees delivered the baby Wednesday night, and it's a beauty.

Now let's see how it develops over the next 19 games.