NEW YORK -- They were going to the World Series. It wasn't official, but it might as well have been.
It was Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series and the Yankees had everything going for them. They had Mariano Rivera on the mound, not to mention a one-run lead and a 3-0 lead in the series against the Red Sox.
But for one of the few times in his career, Rivera didn't protect an October lead. And for the only time in the history of Major League Baseball, the Yankees were unable to protect a 3-0 series lead, sending them down a trail of subsequent postseason frustration that didn't truly end until Sunday night, when they finished off an AL Division Series sweep against the Minnesota Twins.
Because the Yankees are a premier team, one that is always fighting for a championship, it seems almost unfathomable that Friday night's Game 1 against the Angels will mark the first time they've tasted the ALCS in five years.
And five years later, five players from that team remain. Finally, Derek Jeter, Rivera, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui and Alex Rodriguez have a chance to take away that sour taste from 2004 and get to the World Series.
"I didn't think it was that long, to tell you the truth," said Posada. "We play here, and we get ready for this. We come to Spring Training thinking that we have to be in the playoffs. The season doesn't really end for us. It just keeps going when it comes to October. We just hope that we can continue and play a little longer than we have in the last five years."
Perhaps because Jeter takes losing so personally, the time in between ALCS berths has not exactly flown by.
"Yep, it seems like a long time," Jeter said. "We were going home losing every year. That doesn't feel good, man. You work extremely hard to hopefully get to this point of the season and when you don't win, it's disappointing. We've had a lot of disappointment here."
And now, they will try to live up to their storied past and bring home what has been a fairly elusive 27th World Series championship, a goal the Yankees need just eight wins to fulfill.
When Matsui came on board as the much-hyped international signing, deep Octobers were a way of life for the Yankees. His rookie season was 2003, when the Yankees won an epic Game 7 of the ALCS against Boston, only to have the Red Sox return the favor a year later.
In fact, Matsui was on his way to the MVP of that 2004 ALCS, when the Red Sox countered with a stolen base by Dave Roberts, countless big hits by David Ortiz, Curt Schilling's bloody sock and everything else that got in the way.
"I certainly understood that it's not easy to get to the playoffs to begin with," Matsui said. "You can see over the past several years that it wasn't easy. In that sense, I'm just happy to have come this far. Obviously the work is not done, but you have an appreciation for advancing in the playoffs and being where you are."
How could Matsui possibly know it would be five long years before he'd be on that stage again as one of baseball's top four teams?
"I certainly didn't imagine that it would take this long to get back here," Matsui said. "Obviously our goal is to win the World Series. That's been our goal every year. I just didn't think it would take that long."
Winning is, well, hard -- which only makes it more impressive that the Yankees won the World Series four times in five years (1996, 1998-2000), and made it to the ALCS seven times over a nine-year stretch (1996-04).
"Even when we were going, we knew it was tough," Jeter said. "We made it look easy, but we knew how difficult it was to get to this point of the season. It's something you never take for granted."
"It is hard to win," Posada said. "What we've done in the past, it's hard to do that. It's not like we're supposed to be here. It's tough to get here."
The Yankees are back here now with one of the players who prevented them from getting to the next level in 2004, that being Johnny Damon. For Damon, who came to New York with high hopes as a free agent in '06, Friday night will mark his first ALCS action since Game 7 of '04, when he belted two home runs against the Yankees.
"I could not believe it," Damon said of the ALCS drought. "I felt like, in 2006, we had a very good team, but we ran into that rain -- that rainout game against Detroit -- and that felt like it changed the momentum, and then Detroit just caught that wind that they needed and they took care of business against us. But no, I can't believe it's been five years."
This stage is where all players -- not just Yankees -- want to be.
"You try to be here. You enjoy the moments and you enjoy the winning and hopefully we can continue that," said Posada.
Given the perspective of time, and the ups and downs of recent seasons, Jeter was asked if he still considers a season to be a failure if the Yankees don't win the World Series.
"Yep," said Jeter.
Finally, however, the Yankees have at least presented themselves with a fighting chance to reach that lofty goal, getting to the round that is closest to the World Series.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.