NEW YORK — They had stumbled into October, playing the last two months as if they were just another team, failing at the plate and on the mound uncharacteristically often.
For the third time in their history, and the first since 1944, they failed to hold on after leading the American League or AL East on Labor Day.
But now, as the Yankees have regained their sharpness, again looking like World Series champions in their division series sweep of the Twins capped by a 6-1 victory Saturday night.
"In here, we were never worried about that stuff," rightfielder Nick Swisher said Saturday night after the Yankees advanced to the AL Championship Series. "I think in the postseason, experience plays a huge factor, and we have a lot of it in this clubhouse."
New York was 66-37 through July, 29-30 the rest of the way as numerous players wound up in the trainer's room and some on the disabled list.
Left-hander Andy Pettitte was sidelined from July 18 to Sept. 19 because of a strained left groin, and third baseman Alex Rodriguez was out from Aug. 20 to Sept. 5 with a strained left calf. Not long after he was acquired from the Astros at the July 31 trade deadline, DH Lance Berkman spent two weeks on the disabled list with a sprained right ankle.
First baseman Mark Teixeira has played with a broken right pinky toe since being hit by a pitch from Oakland's Vin Mazzaro on Aug. 31. A few days earlier, Teixeira injured his right thumb on a fielding play, an injury that eventually required a shot of painkiller.
Leftfielder Brett Gardner had a sore right wrist that needed a cortisone shot in mid September, around the same time Swisher received a cortisone shot in his sore left knee.
As the Yankees lost 17 of their final 26 regular-season games and finished as the AL wild card, one game behind Tampa Bay, manager Joe Girardi was criticized by some for giving regulars days off. Some fans said he was treating the games as if they were spring training.
"Some of our guys couldn't play, and I think people took that as we weren't trying," Girardi said after the sweep was completed at Yankee Stadium. "Believe me, we were trying. We were trying to win our division. …
"Swish couldn't play for a week. I asked him every day, 'Swish, can you play today?' Swish got tired of me asking. Gardy needed a shot. I think there was a misunderstanding. We handled a guy's innings limit. Andy Pettitte was hurt. There was just things that we had to handle."
The 2000 Yankees lost 13 of their final 15 regular-season games, turning a nine-game AL East lead into a 2½-game margin. But they rebounded in the postseason to win their third straight World Series title.
Now, trying to become the first repeat champions since those 1998-2000 teams, New York is on a similar surge.
The core four — Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Pettitte and Jorge Posada — instill a calm among their teammates, who didn't fret over the late fade.
"Once that last game was over with, it's a whole new season," said first-year Yankee Marcus Thames, whose two-run homer broke open the ALDS finale. "From my locker I look over at Posada, and I watch the way someone like him goes about his business. He's been there so often, it makes you relax when you look at him."