New York had its share of surprises this season, none bigger than the 11-19 start which caused a fair amount of panic in the Bronx. The Yankees found themselves nine games out of first place on May 6, a strange place for a team which had won seven consecutive American League East titles.
"May 6, I wasn't really concerned, because there was a long way to go," said manager Joe Torre. "The only concern we had was playing up to our capabilities, because we felt the wins would come."
After the 11-19 start, the Yankees made some significant changes. Cano was called up from Triple-A Columbus and made the starting second baseman, pushing Womack to center field and Bernie Williams to the bench. Steve Karsay was also released, as the Yankees tried to remake the roster on the fly.
It didn't work immediately, as the Yanks dropped three straight games to the Devil Rays -- something that would become a trend, as New York dropped 11 of 19 games to the feisty Rays.
Mike Mussina snapped the four-game skid on May 7 with a three-hit shutout of the A's, sparking a 10-game winning streak which lifted the Yankees past the .500 mark, though there was still a lot of work to do.
That's because Jaret Wright, one of the team's major pitching acquisitions, was already on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, while its other two significant acquisitions, Randy Johnson and Pavano, hadn't gotten off to the hot starts the team had hoped for.
Chien-Ming Wang stepped in to fill Wright's spot, showing the Yankees that he was capable of contributing on the Major League level. But it wasn't enough to make up for the team's other deficiencies, including a dreadful start by Giambi, who had just four homers and 13 RBIs at the end of May.
Things didn't get much better over the next two months, including a dismal 3-9 road trip which included a sweep at the hands of the lowly Royals and series losses at Minnesota, Milwaukee and St. Louis. The last series included a sloppy 8-1 loss at Busch Stadium, prompting Torre to tee off on his players in a closed-door meeting following the game.
On July 1, the Yankees stood at 39-39, and their direction for the season remained a mystery to everybody.
"The first half of the year, we didn't know who we were," said John Flaherty. "We were struggling and we didn't know how it would end up."
Enter Al Leiter, Small and Chacon.
The three pitchers -- one acquired from the Marlins after a miserable first half, one brought up from the Triple-A scrap heap and another brought over in a deadline deal with a 1-7 record -- gave a huge boost to the Yankees' rotation, making up for injuries to Wang, Pavano and Brown.
"If you're going to have a good year, then people you don't count on have to come through," Mussina said. "These guys have done it."
"They came here with an opportunity to do something as a long shot," said Torre. "I don't think they've felt the pressure that other people did who came in here with high expectations. They had a chance to gain their confidence without people really knowing who they were."
With the pitching finally hitting its stride, the Yankees started winning. The offense, which ranked second in the American League with 885 runs scored, continued hitting. Alex Rodriguez posted MVP-type numbers, while Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui drove in runs with regularity.
Even Giambi rebounded after his slow start, bashing 14 homers in July while hitting .355. The Yankees went 19-10 that month, beginning their climb back into the AL East race.
"Pitching is the name of the game," Jeter said. "Wang, Chacon, Small; all these guys started to step up, which took a lot of pressure off the offense."
The Yankees posted an identical 19-10 mark in August, pulling within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Red Sox by the end of the month. That deficit increased to four games by Sept. 8, as the Yankees prepared to host Boston for three games in the Bronx.
The two teams split the first two games, but the Big Unit outdueled veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in the finale, pulling New York within three games instead of falling behind by five.
That victory served as a wakeup call, as the Bombers went on to win 15 of their next 19 games -- the last of those wins coming at Fenway Park to clinch New York's eighth straight division title.
"We needed every inch of it. These guys wouldn't be denied," Torre said while celebrating the clincher. "The first is always memorable, but this is the best of all of them because of all the questions that were asked. This has to be the most special because of everything that went on this year.
"This is something you can't take for granted," Jeter said. "Especially as difficult as it was this year, you realize how hard it was to do."
Despite the Division Series loss to the Angels, the Yankees headed their separate ways with the knowledge that they overcame some very large obstacles to reach the postseason.
"It's disappointing," said A-Rod after his 2-for-15 ALDS performance. "This was a year of such trials and tribulations for us, and we played so well down the stretch. To end in this fashion -- it's disappointing."
"It's not an easy thing to do," said Jeter of winning the World Series. "If it was easy to do, a lot of teams would be doing it. You have to be the hottest team, and we haven't been the hottest team the last few years."
The regular-season success isn't going to heal the wounds of another early October exit, but the Yankees will be back next year to take aim at a 27th World Series title.
"When you have to play the games, go through six weeks of Spring Training and six months of baseball just to get to the postseason, it's not as easy as it looks sometimes," Mussina said. "This season was an obvious example for us that nobody can walk on the field and just win a division or go to the postseason.
"We found contributions from people we didn't expect to get contributions from, and guys came through for us," the pitcher added. "It's hard to get to the postseason, but we've been doing it every year. When we get to October, we like our chances. We just didn't play well enough."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.