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Yanks' strong season undercut by ALCS sweep

New York overcame injuries to win division, AL-best 95 games
NEW YORK -- The unfortunate truth of the universe that the Yankees have constructed for themselves is that their real season starts in October, and success or failure is ultimately judged upon their ability to win 11 games against the best teams in the game.

In 2012, for the third straight season, the Yankees were unable to achieve their ultimate mission, and so a four-game sweep in the American League Championship Series delivered statements of disappointment from team brass to accompany the sea of glum faces rolling bags out of Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees went out with a whimper in the ALCS, failing to score in 36 of 39 innings and never holding a lead. With their season on the line in Game 4, they watched ace CC Sabathia get knocked out in the fourth inning and managed just two hits before winter arrived.

"We're going to be back at this again," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "You've got to be in it to win it. We got four games short of getting back to a World Series, so our job is to find a way to get that instant lotto ticket next year."

While there will be no championship flag hoisted in the Bronx next April, the Yankees enjoyed their share of terrific moments in 2012. They won an AL-best 95 games, battling the Orioles down to the wire in a thrilling race for the division.

They then edged that same Baltimore club in a hard-fought AL Division Series that needed the full five games to be decided, highlighted by Raul Ibanez's late heroics off the bench -- not that the Yankees were any strangers to daunting challenges.

Its roster ravaged by injuries all year long, New York still held a 10-game lead in the AL East on July 18 and appeared primed to coast to the postseason, but the Yankees never expected the division to come quite so easily.

True to predictions, it did not, but the Yankees never lost their grasp on first place. They stayed either tied or alone at the top of the division from June 12 through the end of the season, a streak of 114 straight days, as they pointed toward their 13th AL East title in 17 years.

"It's corny to say destiny, but I felt we were just a team that had what it took to make a run," Mark Teixeira said. "We always fought, we always battled through things. We had that pride that we were not going to give up first place."

Boosted by a 10-game winning streak in June, the Yankees eagerly embraced their Bronx Bombers nickname, slugging a franchise record 245 home runs during the regular season and ranking second in the Majors with 804 runs scored.

Weathering injuries to Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees' pitching staff exceeded expectations, a theme that continued into the postseason. Yankees starters were a combined 71-50, the best winning percentage among all AL starting staffs, and Rafael Soriano stepped into injured closer Mariano Rivera's shoes to lock down 42 saves in 46 chances.

"We went through a lot of adversity and nobody expected us to be at this point in general, so we have to walk out of here with our heads high," Nick Swisher said. "We dealt with a lot of stuff, man."

The magic ran out in October, as the club batted just .188, the lowest mark in Yankees history for any team that played more than four postseason games. But as the Yankees look to correct what went wrong, it's worth remembering that there were many positives as well.

Record: 95-67, first in American League East

Defining moment: Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson homered twice, with Cano collecting six RBIs, as the Yankees pounded the Red Sox, 14-2, on the evening of Oct. 3, splashing in their clubhouse and laughing the night away after locking up the AL East. A regular-season victory powered by home runs and solid starting pitching (on this night, from Hiroki Kuroda); that was the '12 Yankees. Unfortunately for them, they'll always wonder what might have been if the bats hadn't gone ice-cold in the playoffs.

What went right: Yankees captain Derek Jeter posted a terrific season at age 38, leading the Majors with 216 hits and batting .316. ... Ibanez became a postseason hero, slugging two late homers in ALDS Game 3 and another in ALCS Game 1. ... Sabathia, Kuroda and Phil Hughes gave the Yankees a trio of pitchers with at least 15 wins for the first time since 2006. ... Kuroda had no trouble adjusting to the AL, establishing career highs in wins (16), starts (33), innings (219 2/3) and strikeouts (167). ... Pettitte returned from retirement and posted a 2.87 ERA in 12 starts. ... Cano hit a career-high 33 homers and tied a career high with 48 doubles, punishing righties at a .359 clip. ... A-Rod reached base in 22 straight games from May 21 to June 15 and hit his 23rd career grand slam on June 12, tying Lou Gehrig's all-time record. ... Eric Chavez enjoyed a comeback season, playing his most games since 2006. ... Granderson hit a career-high 43 homers. ... Ichiro Suzuki hit .322 in 67 games after being acquired from Seattle in July. ... Swisher ranked third among switch-hitters with 93 RBIs, batting at six different spots in the lineup. ... The Yankees were a big league best 51-30 at home. ... Boone Logan made a career-high 80 appearances. ... David Phelps posted a 3.34 ERA and filled a variety of roles. ... The side-slinging tandem of Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada proved to be a wise, low-cost addition. ... The Yankees' .987 fielding percentage was third best in the Majors.

What went wrong: A-Rod's troubles hardly began in the postseason, where he was pinch-hit for in three games and benched in three others. His 57 RBIs were his lowest total ever for a full season, missing more than a month after suffering a left hand fracture on July 24 that hurt his ability to hit right-handed pitching. ... Pettitte suffered a broken ankle in late June and missed nearly three months. ... Rivera's season ended on the Kauffman Stadium warning track May 3. ... Sabathia served two stints on the DL, including one for an elbow injury, the first such assignment of his career. ... Teixeira missed nearly all of September with a left calf strain. ... Opening Day left fielder Brett Gardner hardly played after injuring his elbow April 17. ... Jeter fractured his left ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS, setting the tone for crushing defeats ahead. ... Russell Martin spent much of the season batting under .200 and finished at .211. ... Granderson set a new franchise record with 195 strikeouts. ... Hughes allowed 35 homers, tied for second most in the Majors. ... Michael Pineda missed the whole season after being acquired from the Mariners. ... Joba Chamberlain suffered an open dislocation of his right ankle in March and was limited to 22 appearances. ... Freddy Garcia, a steady presence in 2011, became a forgotten piece. ... Andruw Jones' bat disappeared in the second half. ... Ivan Nova, a 16-game winner last season, struggled after a July injury and was left off the postseason roster.

Biggest surprise: No team ever seems to be prepared for injuries, but the frequency of visits to the Yankees' training room seemed to be stunning at times. The Yankees used the disabled list 17 times in 2012 for 16 different players, who combined to miss a total of 1,510 games on the DL this season.

Which injury was their most crippling? It's debatable, but if anyone had told you that the Yankees were going to lose Rivera -- the all-time saves leader, regular season and postseason, and one of the remaining Core Four members -- after just nine appearances and 8 1/3 innings, you might have assumed their title chances would be cooked.

We could go a lot of different ways for this category, but let's agree that Soriano stepping in to save 42 of 46 chances with a 2.26 ERA proved crucial in getting the Yankees into October. As Pettitte said late in the year, it's impossible to replace Rivera, but Soriano did a pretty good impersonation for a while.

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

New York Yankees, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano