By the standards of George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees, the franchise was in a major drought. The most decorated team in baseball had gone a full nine seasons since winning the World Series. It had been six years since Pinstripes had even been seen in the Fall Classic. Even worse, those ensuing years saw New York’s hated rival in Boston win two championships. The 2009 baseball season was a time for the Empire Strike Back, as the Yankees moved aggressively on the free agent market, moved into an updated version of Yankee Stadium, and won the World Series.
The Steinbrenner Family emptied their wallets to sign big-name free agents in C.C. Sabathia for the rotation and Mark Texiera at first base. Both moves paid off big. Sabathia won 19 games, worked 230 innings, and gave the pitching staff a steady anchor. Texiera hit 39 homers, drove in 122 runs, and finished second in the MVP voting.
Those two additions joined a lot of holdover talent. Derek Jeter was 35-years-old, but the great shortstop hit .334 and placed third in the MVP tally. Robinson Cano was at second base and hit .325 while popping 25 home runs. Alex Rodriguez’s season got a late start due to a 30-day PED suspension, but A-Rod still hit 30 homers with 100 RBIs.
Overall, seven players hit at least 20 home runs and New York scored more runs than anyone in baseball. The pitching staff continued to have the inestimable Mariano Rivera at the back end, and the great closer saved 44 games with a 1.76 ERA. Yankee pitching ranked third in the American League.
In the meantime, Boston wasn’t going anywhere. Kevin Youkilis had a big year at first base, batting .305, hitting 27 home runs and driving in 94 runs. Jason Bay played left field, hit 36 homers, and racked up 119 ribbies. Even in a comparatively down year for David Ortiz, the big DH still hit 28 homers and drove in 99 runs. The Red Sox had a 1-2 punch in the starting rotation of John Lester and Josh Beckett, and a lights-out closer in Jonathan Papelbon.
What Boston did not have was good depth in the pitching staff, and that’s what made the difference over the course of the regular season. The Red Sox were three games ahead of the Yankees at the All-Star break, thanks to winning the first eight head-to-head matchups between the two teams. But New York was more consistent, they were in the lead for what was then a single wild-card spot at the break, and in late summer the Yanks heated up.
New York flipped the script in the head-to-head matchups and blew out to a 7 ½ game lead by Labor Day and were never seriously challenged for the AL East title. Boston went into September still in good position for the wild-card, up three on the Texas Rangers. The Red Sox played pretty well in the final month themselves, pulling away to get into the playoffs. The two rivals were both headed for October.
The Philadelphia Phillies were the defending World Series champs, and a great offense continued to fuel the Phils in ’09. Ryan Howard was a monster at first base, bashing 45 homers, driving in 145 runs, and finishing third in the MVP voting. Chase Utley was the game’s best second baseman, with 31 homers and 93 ribbies. Raul Ibanez was 37-years-old, but the leftfielder was still producing. Ibanez and rightfielder Jayson Werth combined to hit 70 home runs.
Philadelphia’s pitching was a little spotty, especially with ace Cole Hamels not having a great year. The Phils went out and added lefty Cliff Lee at the trade deadline. An NL East race that saw Philadelphia challenged by the upstart Florida Marlins, was broken open in the second half. The Phils nudged out to a 6 ½ game lead by Labor Day and cruised to a third straight division title.
Another easy division winner came out of St. Louis. The great Albert Pujols had an MVP campaign that was nothing short of dazzling—a .327 batting average, 47 home runs, 135 RBIs and 124 runs scored. Pujols carried the offense and then got help at the trade deadline when the Cardinals added Matt Holliday. The leftfielder batting .353 with 13 homers over just 63 games in St. Louis.
St. Louis’ pitching staff had the 2-3 finishers in the Cy Young voting, with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright combining to win 36 games. Ryan Franklin saved 38 games with a buck-92 ERA. The NL Central race was close at the break, with the Cardinals just 2 ½ games in front of a group of challengers that included the Brewers, Cubs, and Houston Astros. After hosting the All-Star Game festivities, St. Louis blew it wide open, were 11 ½ games up on Labor Day, and returning to the postseason after a two-year absence.
The National League’s four-team playoff field was filled out by contenders in the NL West. Joe Torre was managing a Los Angeles Dodgers team that had exceptional balance on the pitching staff. Without anyone that could be characterized as an ace, or even a lights-out closer, the Dodgers posted the best staff ERA in the National League. And a 21-year-old named Clayton Kershaw was starting to develop.
Offensively, the Dodger outfield carried the lineup. Matt Kemp was a rising star in centerfield at the age of 24, hitting .297, popping 26 home runs and stealing 34 bases. Andre Ethier hit 31 home runs in rightfield. And while the erstwhile Manny Ramirez was seeing his raw power start to diminish, the 37-year-old leftfielder still posted on on-base percentage of .418 and a slugging percentage of .531.
The Colorado Rockies dug themselves and early hole and made a managerial change after 46 games. The Rockies got rolling behind shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. With 32 homers, 20 stolen bases and a rifle arm at shortstop, Tulo finished top-5 in the MVP results. Todd Helton played first base and batted .325. Clint Barmes, Ian Stewart, and Brad Hawpe all hit at least 20 homers. In the rotation, Ubaldo Jiminez, Jason Marquis, and Jorge De La Rosa combined for 46 wins.
By the All-Star break, the Dodgers had a comfortable seven-game lead in the NL West, while the Rockies had moved back into wild-card contention. The San Francisco Giants, led by Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, were leading the wild-card race.
Over the late summer, Colorado moved into the wild-card lead and closed the gap on Los Angeles. By the season’s final weekend, both teams had clinched playoff spots and the gap in the division race was only two games. They were playing head-to-head, and the Rockies could win it with a sweep. But Los Angeles won on Saturday returned to the playoffs as the NL West champ and would host St. Louis. Colorado was headed for Philadelphia.
The Los Angeles market saw a lot of good baseball, with the Angels aiming for their third straight AL West crown. The Halo offense was anchored by Kendry Morales, whose .306 batting average, 34 homers and 105 ribbies placed him in the top five of the MVP results. He was surrounded by consistent hitters who could run. Chone Figgins and Tori Hunter were just a hair short of .300 batting averages. Figgins stole 42 bases, while Hunter hit 20 homers. Bobby Abreu was 35-years-old, but still swiped 30 bags. The Angels finished second in the American League in runs scored.
Pitching was inconsistent for the Halos, ranking ninth in the American League in staff ERA. A Texas Rangers team that had an emerging core of Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, and Michael Young that was on the threshold of winning consecutive American League pennants. But Los Angeles still had Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, and John Lackey to stabilize the rotation. The Angels were another team that broke open a competitive division race in August and rolled into the playoffs.
The most exciting regular season race came in the AL Central. The Detroit Tigers spent much of the season in control. The Tigers had young stars in the lineup like 26-year-old Miguel Cabrera, who hit .324, with 34 homers and 103 RBIs. They had young arms like Justin Verlander, who won 19 games, logged 240 innings, and finished third in the Cy Young voting. By Labor Day, Detroit had a comfortable seven-game lead in a division that would produce the Cy Young Award winner—Kansas City’s Zack Greinke—but didn’t seem to have a serious challenger.
Only the Minnesota Twins were lurking. Joe Mauer had a dazzling season—the catcher hit .365, 28 home runs, drove in 96 runs, scored 94 more, and won the AL MVP award. Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer combined to hit 90 home runs. A pitching staff that had problems was stabilized by setup man Matt Guerrier and closer Joe Nathan. In September, these Twins would make their move.
Minnesota came charging and closed to within two games by the final weekend. Over Friday and Saturday, the Twins pulled even. On Sunday, Minnesota and Detroit both won. A tiebreaker game would be necessary.
The AL Central tiebreaker game was a microcosm of the season. The Twins looked dead. A stunning rally late pulled them even. They won in extra innings. Minnesota was going to the playoffs.
New York’s efficient three-game sweep of Minnesota in the Division Series round was no surprise, but two other sweeps were. The Red Sox had been the team who had the Angels’ number, ousting the Halos from this round in 2004, 2007, and 2008. But not this year. That shaky Angel pitching turned lights-out, allowing just one run in a pair of home wins. And a rally against Papelbon in Game 3 pulled out a thrilling 7-6 triumph and a ticket to the American League Championship Series.
There would be two Los Angeles teams in the LCS round, because the Dodgers also delivered a sweep. After winning Game 1, L.A. trailed St. Louis 2-1 in the ninth inning of Game 2. There were two outs. But Holliday dropped a routine fly ball that would have ended the game. Given new life, the Dodgers pulled it out 3-2, and went on the road to close out the sweep.
The Phillies and Rockies would play the best of the four Division Series matchups. After Philadelphia set the tone with a 5-1 win in Game 1, the remainder of the games were one-run affairs. Colorado gave themselves a chance with a Game 2 win. But the Phils pulled out tight wins in Games 3 & 4 to keep their repeat bid alive.
If there was anything that Alex Rodriguez had become infamous for—even more than PED use—it was his inability to deliver in the postseason. 2009 was the historic exception to that rule and Game 2 of the Yankees-Angels ALCS was a prime example. With LAA having just taken the lead in the 11th inning and poised to tie the series, A-Rod homered. New York went on to win that game. The Angels didn’t give up and won two of three on the road. But the Yankees were coming together at the right time and behind two wins from Sabathia, put the series away in six games.
The Phillies-Dodgers battle was a rematch, and the teams split the first two games in Los Angeles. But that powerful Philadelphia attack unloaded back at home. Over the three middle games, the Phils scored 26 runs, with Howard doing heavy damage. The NLCS never got back to the West Coast. Philadelphia was returning to the World Series.
Throughout this postseason, Cliff Lee was pitching terrific baseball and was ready to go for Game 1 of the World Seres in Yankee Stadium. A 6-1 Phillies win gave hope to the underdogs. But New York countered by winning the next three games, thanks in no small part to a series of big hits by A-Rod. Lee took the mound in Game 5 and Philadelphia kept the series alive.
Game 6 would be a big party in New York. Hideki Matsui capped off a Series where he hit .615, by hitting an early two-run homer that set the tone and driving in six runs. The Yankees won comfortably, 7-3. The World Series trophy was back in the Big Apple.