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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

The Yankees' entire season until now? We're talking practice

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NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter got it right.

Or should we say he almost got it right?

For teams like the Yankees, the regular season really is just "practice," as Jeter told his teammates before the series with the Twins began last week. For teams like the Yankees, this is when it counts, as the Yankees captain said.

He's right. For teams like the Yankees, the regular season is only about getting in, and minor details like a 13-17 record after Sept. 1 mean next to nothing. For teams like the Yankees, it is all about the playoffs.

But here's where it seems Jeter was wrong: Practice for the Yankees didn't end with Game 162 a week ago in Boston. Practice ended Saturday night, when the Yankees swept away the Twins with a 6-1 victory in Game 3.

Getting past the Twins was the easy part, the warmup round, as it always is. Beating the Rangers or the Rays, and then beating the Phillies, that's the part that really counts for the Yankees.

That's not to say they can't do it. That's not to say they won't do it.

If the Yankees proved anything during this three-game dress rehearsal, it's that they're a lot closer to being the team we saw last October than the one some Yankees fans fretted over last month. Their rotation isn't nearly the problem it seemed to be, their lineup is productive when it needs to be, and this is quite obviously a team that understands winning.

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"Because of who we have in this clubhouse, we have to expect to win," CC Sabathia said in a Yankees clubhouse that included champagne but only a little real celebrating. "I feel like we're in pretty good shape."

At this point, you would have to say the Yankees are in better shape than their next opponent, whomever that will be.

The Rays and Rangers have at least one more game to play in their division series, maybe two. One more game isn't a big problem for the Rangers, but two more games would rule out Cliff Lee from a Game 1 -- or even a Game 2 -- start against the Yankees.

And for the Rays to advance now, they need two more games, which means there's no way we get a David Price-Sabathia rematch in Game 1 on Friday night.

Asked if he would like to see a Game 5 in which Lee would start against the Rays, Sabathia just laughed.

"I don't know," he said. "We'll see what happens."

We've already seen what happens with the Yankees when the regular season ends. We've already seen what happens when the games become more important.

Maybe you were surprised they could turn it on again, just like that. But don't think they were surprised.

"I think once we went ahead and started the postseason, everyone was 100 percent confident," Curtis Granderson said. "You've just got to get in. Just like with Detroit."

He means Detroit 2006, a good memory for him but a bad memory for his current team. Those Tigers were every bit as bad as the 2010 Yankees down the stretch, going 12-16 from Sept. 1 on and blowing a huge division lead to the Twins.

They came to Yankee Stadium that October as the wild-card team, eliminated the Yankees and went on to the World Series, while the division champion Twins lost three straight to the A's and went home.

The Twins, incidentally, haven't won a postseason game since then. They've lost 12 consecutive postseason games overall, and nine in a row to the Yankees.

The Twins, by the way, do not regard the first 162 games as practice. Of course, the Twins also do not regard nine consecutive postseason losses to the Yankees as domination.

"That's not dominating us, other than wins and losses," manager Ron Gardenhire said before pointing out how close so many of the games have been.

The Yankees understand that the postseason is defined only by wins and losses. And they understand that for the elite teams, the regular season is defined only by whether you get into the playoffs.

"I think Derek Jeter said it best in our team meeting," pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "The 162-game schedule was just practice. You have to win a spot in the playoffs. He said, 'Practice is over, this is when it counts.'

"We were below .500 in September. So what?"

Their rotation behind Sabathia seemed to be a huge question mark last week. So what, now that Andy Pettitte performed very well in Game 2 against the Twins, and Phil Hughes was even better in Game 3 on Saturday.

"The way we pitched in this series does not surprise me," said Eiland, whose staff combined for a 2.00 ERA in three games against the Twins. "And I expect us to pitch that way going forward."

Presumably, they'll be tested more in the next round than they were in the first one. Presumably, if they get to the World Series, it will be a bigger test than these three games were.

In any case, no matter what you think of the Twins, practice for the Yankees is most definitely over now.

And now, starting on Friday night at Texas or Tampa Bay, now is when it counts.

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