So isn't this how it always seems to end? OK, silly question. Of course, it is. The playoffs will commence in two weeks, and as usual, the sight of pinstripes will be as regular a part of the landscape as the dugout bunting. The New York Yankees haven't officially clinched their invitation yet, but with a four-game edge in the loss column over the Detroit Tigers in the American League wild-card race before Saturday, it should be arriving in the mail shortly.

Sure, they teased us with the notion that this season might be different. A 21-29 mark through the season's first two months put general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre squarely in owner George Steinbrenner's cross-hairs and provided hope to Yankee-haters that the Bombers' time might be done, finally.

Should've known better. The Yankees put out the same bait two seasons ago, limping to an 11-19 start. Their bashers fell for it then, and like now, wound up silenced.

The moral of the story, then, is that this is how it always ends. This will be 13 consecutive trips to the cauldron that is October baseball, and it seems Billy Martin will sooner return from the grave to burn down the Bronx than will a postseason be conducted without the Yanks.

Thus, it will be another fall of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, the three Yankees who have been with Torre practically since the beginning. Another fall of Alex Rodriguez and his never-ending quest to prove October is not the kryptonite to his superhuman ability. Another fall of Roger Clemens tapping Babe Ruth's monument, and in so doing, making sick anyone who saw him pitch against Dave Stewart.

Still, as redundant as those storylines have become, there is something remarkably fresh about this version of Team $$$. These Yankees have risen from the dead on the wings of several players who are playing primary roles for the first time. Some of the names have infiltrated the household, others haven't. But it's a cast of characters that has brought some new vitality to this long-standing program.

Take Chien-Ming Wang, for instance. Wang won 19 games in 2006 but did so while playing the understudy to Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina. In 2007, with the Big Unit dealt in the offseason and Mussina's best days clearly behind him, Wang was the designated Yankees ace from the beginning. And he's responded with 18 wins, an especially impressive total considering he didn't win even once in April.

The return of Andy Pettitte after he was spun off for a three-year cameo in Houston also has been huge. Pettitte is 9-2 and has pitched fewer than six innings only twice in 12 starts since the All-Star break. He's 14-9 in 34 career postseason starts, including 10-5 with the Yankees, and his presence provides New York's rotation the depth it lacked when he was in Houston.

Then there's reliever Joba Chamberlain, the set-up man who has been called Joba the Hut for obvious reasons but who really ought to be called Joba the Hurt, because that's what he's done to opposing lineups seeking late-inning comebacks. Chamberlain, who began the season in Single-A, has pitched 16 innings since his recall in early August and still hasn't allowed an earned run (opponents are hitting .143 against him). He's become the primary bridge to Rivera, and has given the Yanks a 1-2 punch out of the 'pen that they've lacked since Jeff Nelson was doing the same in their last title season of 2000.

There's also center fielder Melkey Cabrera, 22, whose impact since the start of July -- .313, 38 RBI, better-than-expected defense -- has meant less playing time for Johnny Damon and a boatload of victories. New York is 46-23 since June ended.

And starter Ian Kennedy, who has endeared himself to New Yorkers despite a last name that conjures up all things Boston, can't be overlooked, either. Kennedy's first three starts have produced 19 innings, 15 strikeouts, a 1.89 ERA, two Yankee victories and a nice problem Torre needs to solve. Namely, should the kid get the ball in the playoffs? Add to the equation the excellence of second baseman Robinson Cano (.298, 83 RBI); the understated proficiency of Hideki Matsui (.290, 94 RBI); and the resurgence of Bobby Abreu (.320, 11 HR's, 55 RBI) since the All-Star break), and the quiet wizadry of Torre, and it's enough to make you wonder if the Yankees aren't ready to add a 27th championship to their overloaded trophy case. Then again, feel free to doubt that possibility. After all, if the Yankees are synonymous with October baseball, then so, too, is a nation full of folks pulling for their demise.

And thankfully, how that campaign comes to an end is not nearly as predictable.

Contact Rick Hurd at rhurd@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • As if baseball's list of unwritten rules weren't lengthy and murky enough, Tim Hudson has one he'd like to add. The Braves' starter took exception when he was picked off second base by New York's Oliver Perez on Monday, essentially saying it wasn't cool for one pitcher to do so to another pitcher. Apparently, Hudson lost sight of the unwritten that states pitchers shouldn't wander too far off the bag in a one-run game in a key late-season showdown.

  • Perhaps the Baltimore Orioles should lobby for a written rule that they are exempt from playing on Wednesday's. The O's have lost the past five games they've played on Wednesday by a combined score of 79-22, and their bullpen has been the major culprit. Baltimore's relievers have compiled an ERA of 21.09 over 21-1/3 innings in those hump-day meltdowns.

  • Then again, the O's have been pretty lousy every day of the week for the past month. Baltimore entered the weekend on a 3-18 stretch and had been outscored by 100 runs (196-96) since Aug. 22, the day manager Dave Trembley had the "interim" tag removed from his title. For the record, the O's were outscored by only 85 runs (129-44) during their 0-21 start in 1988.

  • At least the O's can't lay claim to 15 straight losing seasons yet (though check back in another five years). That dubious distinction belongs to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who need only to lose 82 games next season to match the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies as baseball's most consistent losers. Their current run already matches the longest in any of the other three major professional sports, equaling the NBA's Kansas City/Sacramento Kings (1983-98) and NHL's Vancouver Canucks (1976-91) and besting the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1983-96).

  • On the other side of the ledger, the New York Yankees shook off their miserable start to extend baseball's longest streak of winning seasons. The Bombers have won at least 82 games in 15 straight seasons. The Yanks' run of success is a generation short of the franchise and major-league record, however. The Yankees of Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle and Maris posted 39 straight winning seasons from 1926-64.

  • One other way these Yankees are tied to their past: Third baseman Alex Rodriguez is the first Bomber to reach 50 home runs since Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle each did it in 1961. A-Rod also joined Babe Ruth as one of only four players who have hit 50 home runs in three seasons. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the others.

  • Speaking of home run history, the Milwaukee Brewers have equaled some as well. Milwaukee has become just the second team in major-league history to boast four players no older than 25 with 20 home runs. Prince Fielder (44), Ryan Braun (30), J.J. Hardy (24) and Corey Hart (21) joined Larry Parrish (30), Andre Dawson (25), Gary Carter (22) and Ellis Valentine (21) of the 1979 Montreal Expos as the only such quartet.

  • The Boston Red Sox have had a pretty good go of it recently, with their 10 straight winning seasons the second-best current run in baseball. But their latest winning campaign has not brought about a contract extension for manager Terry Francona yet, a fact that seems even more odd in light of the recent extensions given by the Chicago White Sox to Ozzie Guillen (five years, $12 million) and by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to Joe Maddon (two years). Francona told the Boston Globe that all inquiries about said omission need to be directed to Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

  • Detroit's Magglio Ordonez got his big payday (five years, $75 million) three seasons ago, and he's certainly been well worth it. Ordonez, who hit the home run that won Detroit's first AL title since 1984 last October, entered the weekend needing just nine RBI to become the first Tiger to drive in 140 runs since Hank Greenberg did so in 1940.

  • Meantime, Shawn Green may decide his current contract is his final one. The Mets outfielder, who has been in a reserve role the past month, said he will sit down with his family at the end of the season and discuss whether he wants to keep playing. The Mets likely will not exercise his $10 million option and instead may choose to buy him out for $2 million and make him a free agent. Green, who turns 35 in November, told the New York Times he will not accept a utility role anywhere else. Green entered the weekend needing 13 hits to reach 2,000 in his career.

    RANKINGS

    1. Red Sox 1

    Five straight 30-HR years for David Ortiz equals Jimmie Foxx, trails only Manny Ramirez (6)

    2. Angels 2

    They've posted four straight winning seasons for first time in franchise history

    3. Indians 3

    So much for wearing down: 17-6 surge during 23-day stretch has playoffs beckoning

    4. Yankees 4

    Suddenly, they have good young pitchers sprouting up from all over

    5. Mets 5

    Pedro Martinez (.693) moves past Whitey Ford (.690) for majors' all-time best winning percentage

    6. D'backs 6

    Losing Orlando Hudson will prove that second basemen aren't a dime a dozen

    7. Tigers 8

    Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield each have at least 100 runs

    8. Padres 7

    David Wells gets first multihit game at age 44; only Satchel Paige did it later

    9. Phillies 10

    A question to ponder before starting MVP debate: Who gets vote on this team?

    10. Rockies 12

    Todd Helton betters Tris Speaker, becomes first with 10 straight 35-double seasons

    11. Dodgers 11

    Get his Hall speech ready: Jeff Kent has 12 straight 20-homer seasons

    12. Cubs 13

    Lou's crew is sweet (59-33) when starter goes at least six; sour (16-38) when he doesn't

    13. Mariners 9

    Amidst plunge, a nice note: Their 44 come-from-behind wins are most in majors

    14. Braves 15

    Two straight Octobers without this team? Maybe the apocalypse really is approaching

    15. Blue Jays 14

    Until last week, starters hadn't lost consecutive starts since late July

    16. Twins 17

    What does future hold now that one of best GM's (Terry Ryan) has called it a day?

    17. Brewers 18

    Give him the stop sign: Prince Fielder poised to join dad in elite 40 (HR)-0 (SB) club

    18. Rangers 20

    Michael Young needs 18 hits over final 16 games to reach 200 for fifth straight year

    19. Reds 22

    He won't get many Cy Young votes, but Aaron Harang again among NL's best

    20. A'S 19

    They haven't faced an elimination this early since the post-McGwire days of 1997

    21. Cardinals 16

    Apparently, they'll prove to be too flawed to complete a miracle finish

    22. Pirates 25

    They're a cumulative 261 games below .500 since losing ways began in 1992

    23. GIANTS 23

    With speed suddenly in abundance, maybe they should hire Whitey Herzog, install turf

    24. D. Rays 24

    Fix 'pen, add one more solid starter, and they could knock on .500's door

    25. Royals 21

    In the end, Alex Gordon has shown flashes of being stud he's been projected to be

    26. White Sox 28

    Even the weather gods don't like this team: 10 games have been delayed by rain

    27. Nationals 26

    Pitcher Ross Detweiler is first from class of 2007 to appear in majors

    28. Astros 27

    Craig Biggio will finish career trailing only Speaker, Rose, Musial, Cobb on doubles list

    29. Marlins 29

    Hanley Ramirez third ever with 360 hits, 40 HRs, 90 SBs over two-season span

    30. Orioles 30

    Parents, this pitching staff is not suitable viewing for young eyes