NEW YORK -- The extra week added to the season proved quite beneficial for the New York Yankees.
Had the playoffs started as scheduled last week, Joe Torre would have been scrambling to put out a healthy team.
Now, the Yankees enter their first-round series against Oakland as healthy as they've been in months and poised for a run at a fourth straight World Series title.
"We're in a lot better shape this week than last week at this time," Torre said Monday. "The season went a week longer than it was supposed to, and that wasn't a good thing. We wouldn't have panicked if we started last week. But we were not in as good shape as we are now."
AL East champion New York begins defense of its title on Wednesday night with a rematch against the wild-card Athletics, when Roger Clemens (20-3) takes on Mark Mulder (21-8).
"We're looking for 11 more wins," Oakland manager Art Howe said. "That's our goal. If we play the way we're capable, we should have a great shot."
So should the Yankees, now that they are healthy.
In the past week - added to the schedule because of a break caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - closer Mariano Rivera has returned from a cortisone shot in his right ankle; Orlando Hernandez and Andy Pettitte pitched well in their returns from sore elbows; Paul O'Neill is healthy and ready to return to right field; and setup man Ramiro Mendoza felt strong this weekend, even if he was ineffective.
"I sense that we're ready to play," Torre said. "Whether that translates into us winning, I can't tell you. I'm very confident we're ready to go into this thing."
The Yankees better be healthy and on top of their game, because they've never opened the playoffs against as accomplished a team as Oakland in Torre's five years at the helm.
The A's won 102 games, but had to settle for the wild card because Seattle won the AL West with 116 victories.
"It could be a classic series," New York first baseman Tino Martinez said. "Both teams have good offenses, very good starting pitching, good bullpens. It's two solid teams that are hungry. We want to win the title. Those guys are young and they want to establish themselves."
Oakland is led by reigning MVP Jason Giambi and a talented, young rotation of Mulder, Tim Hudson (18-9) and Barry Zito (17-8). After taking the Yankees to a decisive fifth game last year, the A's are ready to go even further this time.
The A's led the majors with a 58-17 mark after the All-Star break (.773) - the second-best in major league history behind the 1954 Cleveland Indians (.775).
"It would be disappointing if we didn't get further than we did last year," Giambi said. "But at the same time, that's a pretty imposing team over there."
Giambi was a key part of the turnaround. Many of his teammates credit the success to a speech Giambi gave during the team's 8-18 start.
"When your team leader steps up and tells everybody basically to just relax and play your game, that's big," outfielder Terrence Long said. "And it gave a lot of guys - including myself - a lot of confidence."
There are a few differences between this series and last year's - including that this one starts in New York.
More importantly, Oakland has Jermaine Dye to give needed protection to Giambi, who was walked in seven of his 22 plate appearances last year. The A's are 48-14 since the three-way trade to acquire Dye, who has 59 RBIs for Oakland.
Also, the A's have a healthy Mulder - who missed last year's series with a bad back - and its rotation in order.
After clinching the playoffs on the final day of the 2000 season, the A's had to use No. 4 starter Gil Heredia in Games 1 and 5 against New York. Heredia won the opener, but couldn't make it out of the first inning in the decisive Game 5.
"Last year we were fighting for our lives trying to get there, and it took everything to get there," Howe said. "We haven't really extended ourselves as much as last year. So the tank should be full and the energy level is going to be there. Now it's just a matter of executing."
New York is better, too.
Last year, the Yankees lost 15 of 18 to end the regular season before recovering in the playoffs. Torre was forced to go to a three-man rotation in the first round, and Clemens and Andy Pettitte got shelled in the final two games pitching with short rest.
This year, the addition of Mike Mussina gives Torre four starters he feels confident in.
"Last year we went with three starters and it almost cost us," Torre said. "This year, we're not considering that. Pitching-wise, we're probably a little deeper."
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