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Surprise, surprise: Yanks clinch

©Associated Press
September 22, 2002

DETROIT -- Love 'em or hate 'em, the New York Yankees can't be denied one thing: They win.

Penciled in as champions before they threw a pitch or swung a bat this season, the Yankees made it official Saturday by winning their fifth straight AL East title with a 3-2 victory over the Tigers.

"It's amazing," said pitcher David Wells, who returned to the Yankees as a free agent in 2002 after two seasons in Toronto and one in Chicago. "These guys keep going and going and going. The last seven or eight years this team has been penciled in to win it.

"But you know what? We've gone out and done it."

Andy Pettitte pitched seven strong innings and Mariano Rivera returned from the disabled list as the Yankees clinched a playoff spot for the eighth straight season.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Pettitte is the first pitcher since 1961 to get at least 12 victories in each of his first eight seasons. In helping the Yankees lock up their 11th division crown since 1969, he also sent the Tigers to their 100th loss.

"This one is special," said Pettitte, who spent two months on the disabled list this season. "It's tough to continue to win every year and have the drive and desire that we have."

It hasn't hurt New York's title chances to have baseball's biggest payroll. But Pettitte said that's no guarantee for success.

"We've got a great manager, and an owner that spends the money," he said. "But you still have to go out and play the game. It's extremely tough every year to win, because everybody's playing us like it's their World Series."

Rivera, normally on the mound when the Yankees clinch, pitched for the first time since Aug. 15. He had been on the DL with a strained right shoulder before pitching a perfect eighth.

Steve Karsay finished for his 12th save.

After he struck out Damion Easley for the final out, the Yankees gathered in the infield, shook hands and exchanged a few high-fives and hugs, treating it more like a win in April than one guaranteeing them more games in October.

But in the clubhouse, the Yankees doused each other with champagne.

"It is an unbelievable, fantastic feeling to do this for your hometown team," said Karsay, who grew up in Queens. "I've won things in other cities, but it wasn't like this. This is why I signed with the Yankees, for a chance to have special moments like this."

Nick Johnson drove in two and Jorge Posada had three hits for the Yankees, one of three teams to finish first five straight times. New York did it from 1949-53 and 1960-64, before the AL was divided into divisions. The Athletics (1971-75) and Braves (1991-02) have had similar runs in the expansion era.

The Yankees, who won three straight World Series before losing to Arizona in Game 7 last year, added high-priced free agents Karsay and Jason Giambi in the offseason, then spent much of the first half trailing Boston before moving into first place for good June 29.

New York then added pitcher Jeff Weaver and outfielder Raul Mondesi before the break as insurance before taking control of the division with a comeback wins against the Red Sox on July 20-21 at New York.

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