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Yanks waiting to learn first-round opponent

Yanks waiting to learn first-round opponent

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NEW YORK -- It was merely three years ago that the Yankees last played postseason baseball in Detroit, at a time so laden with frustration that Alex Rodriguez was dropped to eighth in the order for the 2006 American League Division Series' decisive Game 4. Those were hardly happy times for the Bronx Bombers.

Now that the Yankees have clinched the best record in the AL, however, and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, they can look to what might be a shot at revenge. If the Tigers fend off the Twins to wrap up an AL Central crown and the Red Sox become the AL Wild Card entry, then New York will play Detroit in the first round of the playoffs again.

Owning the best record, the Yankees normally would play the Wild Card team in the first round. But because the likely Wild Card team, the Red Sox, is in their division, they will instead play the team with the next-worst record -- a team certain to come out of the AL Central.

During the Sunday celebration of their 4-2 win over the Red Sox, of course, the Yankees' next opponent hardly seemed to matter.

"Going for a world title -- that's everything that we're shooting for," outfielder Johnny Damon said. "We accomplished a couple of steps. We accomplished making the playoffs. We accomplished winning home-field advantage, but we need to win playoff games. That's the bottom line now. Anything else would be unsatisfactory for us."

After winning Game 1 of that 2006 ALDS, the Yankees dropped three consecutive games to the Tigers, scoring just six runs over the final three games. Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson and Jaret Wright were the losing pitchers.

Three years later, though, much has changed. Detroit's rookie phenom that season, Justin Verlander, has blossomed into one of the top starting pitchers in the game -- and one of the few men capable of matching up favorably with the Yankees' ace, CC Sabathia. But Sabathia, too, has introduced a wrinkle to the matchup. He, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira -- all major free-agent acquisitions this past winter -- have all found success in their first season in New York, transforming the face of the franchise.

"It's different, because we've got a different way about us this year," said catcher Jorge Posada, one of the four current Yankees to win four titles with the team. "Hopefully we can finish what we started."

The third and fourth hitters from former manager Joe Torre's Game 4 lineup -- Bobby Abreu and Gary Sheffield -- are gone. Rodriguez, in his return from right hip surgery, has put together a sensational second half of the season. And the Yankees, who won 97 games to win the division in 2006, have already won 100 this year with an entire week to play.

"The way the team looks right now, we're set," Sunday's winning pitcher, Andy Pettitte, said. "We're set to go into the postseason. There's really nothing you could say that we need."

The Tigers, though, are also strong, thanks in large part to the trade that placed Edwin Jackson beside Verlander in their rotation. Boasting a lineup that features Miguel Cabrera, Curtis Granderson and Brandon Inge -- all of them with at least 27 homers -- and an improved back end of the bullpen, the Detroit also has a rotation as deep as it is strong. Joining Verlander and Jackson on the mound are Jarrod Washburn -- a midseason acquisition -- and rookie Rick Porcello.

For all the Tigers' talent, though, the Yankees are 5-1 against them in six meetings this season.

The Yankees, of course, cannot assume a trip to Detroit. Scuffling of late, the Tigers hold merely a two-game lead over the Twins with one week to play -- and the AL Central rivals are about to meet for four decisive games this week in Detroit. There is still a sizable chance that the Yankees could be hosting the Twins, not the Tigers, come Oct. 7.

Though the Twins would be a far hotter team than the Tigers heading into October, they may not match up as well against the Yankees. Seven times New York faced Minnesota this season and seven times the Bombers won, including a four-game sweep at Yankee Stadium in July.

Then there is the matter of postseason history. In both 2003 and '04, the Twins played the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs, losing both series by a 3-1 margin.

The Twins do not boast the front-line pitching of the Tigers, and they will be playing without former AL MVP Justin Morneau, whose season recently ended due to a stress fracture in his lower back. But they do have a formidable offense led by MVP candidate Joe Mauer, and they do boast a dangerous home-field advantage on the artificial turf of the Metrodome.

The Yankees could also potentially play the Rangers in the first round, if Texas is able to make a miraculous comeback and steal the AL Wild Card spot from Boston.

On Sunday, though, such scenarios hardly seemed to matter. After sweeping the Red Sox to reach the last of their regular-season goals, the Yankees had loftier visions clouding their thoughts.

"I think this team has a pretty good chance of going pretty far in the playoffs," designated hitter Hideki Matsui said through an interpreter. "We just have to make sure we stay focused and do what we need to do."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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