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5 things that changed the season for Yanks

NEW YORK -- When the Yankees were spraying champagne in their clubhouse on Thursday night, celebrating a return to the postseason after two dark Octobers, several players spoke of how gratifying the clinch had been because of their perceived status as underdogs to make it that far.

Yes, no one seemed quite sure what to make of the 2015 Yankees as they rounded into form; a big-money, veteran club that was banking on bounce-back performances from some of the older performers to accomplish their goals.

Here are five things that changed the Yankees' season as they head into the American League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN:

:: AL Wild Card Game: Astros vs. Yankees -- Tune-in info ::

1. A-Rod returns, does everything right
The Yankees had no expectations for Rodriguez, entering his age-40 season with two hip surgeries already under his belt and coming off a historic drug suspension. It was impossible to predict how quickly he would turn things around. Rodriguez embraced the opportunity to change the storyline and served as a model citizen and teammate in the clubhouse. He did not fight an inevitable transition to a full-time designated-hitter role, and was rewarded on-field by passing Willie Mays on the home run list and joining the 3,000-hit club.

"With all the stuff that I went through in '14, I've talked about how dark those days were," Rodriguez said. "To come back this year and be part of such a special team and such special guys ... we truly are a family."

2. Mark Teixeira's injury
Teixeira was arguably the MVP of the Yankees' lineup, leading the team with 31 home runs on the evening of Aug. 17, when he fouled a ball off his right shin. Teixeira left the game in obvious discomfort, but it took three rounds of testing to confirm that it was a fracture and not just a bone bruise, as initially thought. Though Teixeira is expected to return with no issues next spring, his absence made the Yankees more susceptible to left-handed starters.

"One of the reasons we're where we're at is because of everything that clearly Mark did this year for us," general manager Brian Cashman said. "He had been a superb player batting in the middle of that lineup."

3. "DNA" tested
People tried to float a couple of nicknames for the late-inning tandem of closer Andrew Miller and right-hander Dellin Betances; "DNA" was one that never really took off, and they filmed a cute video selling "one-two punch" on the field at Yankee Stadium. Opposing hitters just called them a nightmare; Miller seamlessly took over the closer's role and Betances again enjoyed an All-Star season as a setup man, even filling in nicely when Miller was shelved due to injury. They were a big reason why the Yanks' bullpen set an all-time franchise strikeout mark, and manager Joe Girardi called on them frequently.

4. Yanks stand pat
While the Blue Jays stole the headlines in late July, revamping their club in an all-out push to end their playoff drought, the Yankees largely decided to stand pat -- and then watched a seven-game lead disappear. Cashman refused to part with right-hander Luis Severino, first baseman Greg Bird, outfielder Aaron Judge or shortstop Jorge Mateo to upgrade the 2015 club, though he eventually did offer Mateo in a proposal for closer Craig Kimbrel that was not completed. While the Yanks tried for bigger names on the board, they ultimately were only able to bring in Dustin Ackley from the Mariners.

"Those guys are tough to move for us," Cashman said then. "I had a tough time keeping people off. Most people basically would want the most immediate talent that can be in the Major Leagues by next year. It was a challenge getting anybody off those guys, to be honest."

5. The kids are all right
Because the Yankees kept their young talent for their own needs, it was encouraging to see those Baby Bombers enjoy some early success in pinstripes. Severino was slotted into the rotation in early August, offering a boost at a time where Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia were down due to injuries (all five Yankee starters spent time on the DL). It was prudent that the Yanks managed the 21-year-old Severino so he would have no innings limitations in the Majors. They also happily accepted Bird's professional at-bats after Teixeira's injury, prompting the question of how the Yankees will find at-bats for Bird next season after Teixeira's anticipated return.

"Just really, really big," Girardi said. "Two kids, 21 and 22, who have really stepped up. I think what I've been most impressed with is just their attitude and how calm they are in big situations. Very impressive to me."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.
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