Before we take a look forward at what is to come in the ALDS, let’s travel back in time to the beginning of the season in late March and early April. Just about six months ago the Yankee faithful had serious questions about the pitching staff and how the Bombers were going to match up against the Rays and Red Sox.
The Yankees had to deal with the injury bug as it bit them when Mariano Rivera was lost for the season shagging fly balls in Kansas City. It struck again when Andy Pettitte was hit with a comeback line drive that fractured his ankle. Both Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were lost for valuable amounts of time with injuries of their own. CC Sabathia was on the disabled list with injuries to his elbow, and their off-season acquisition Michael Pineda never touched the field (yeah remember that guy? Sorry for bringing him up). Let’s also not forget that Brett Gardner was out for most of the season with his wrist injury. Needless to say, the Yankees had to fight the fight in 2012 and they did, against a team they didn’t expect to be in a battle with, the Baltimore Orioles.
In 2011, the Orioles claim to fame was knocking the Red Sox from playoff contention on the last day of the season. In 2012, manager Buck Showalter had his young team poised to make a run, and what a run it has been. They’ve been calling it “Oriole Magic” all season as the young birds won 16 of 19 extra inning games and were 28-9 in one-run games this season. The O’s pushed the Yankees to the brink, forcing New York to win the 162ndgame in order to claim the AL East division crown yet again. As the Yankees won that game, the Orioles lost in Tampa sending them to a winner take all, one-game playoff game in Texas against the Rangers. They came out on top in that game, capitalizing on Ranger mistakes and having timely hitting- the exact same thing they’ve done all season. The win sets up the showdown of AL East rivals in the playoffs for the first time since 1996 when a 12-year-old, Jeffrey Maier made a little magic of his own. Since that moment the two teams have went in opposite directions and destinies, until today.
The ALDS starts tonight in Baltimore, with MLB’s new playoff format as the lower seeded team gets the first two games then the next three are at the home of the higher seeded team. The Yankees will send their workhorse, CC Sabathia (15-6, 3.38 ERA) to the mound to try to silence the Baltimore bats, and their home crowd. Sabathia has turned it up a notch over his last three starts of the season. He pitched 8 innings in each of those games while only allowing 13 total hits, four runs, struck out 28 batters and lowered his ERA from 3.63 to 3.38. To say he is getting hot at the right time is a complete understatement, as for the Yankees to have any post-season success they need their pitching and it starts with Sabathia. Following up Sabathia will be Andy Pettitte (5-4, 2.87 ERA) in game two, Hiroki Kuroda (16-11, 3.32 ERA) in game three and scheduled to start game four, Phil Hughes (16-13, 4.23 ERA). Kuroda has been a nice addition to the Yankees rotation this season after coming over from the Dodgers. He has been consistent throughout the season, but the question that remains to be answered is how he will respond to the playoffs in the Bronx. What we do know is that the playoff pressure doesn’t bother Pettitte; it actually makes him stronger (19-10, 3.83 ERA in the playoffs- 18 of those wins are as a Yankee). When the Yankees won the World Series in 2009 Pettitte started and won every series clinching game- just shows how big of a playoff performer the lefty has been. I only see Hughes pitching game four if the Yankees already grabbed a 2-1 series lead, otherwise expect Sabathia on three days rest.
The area that failed the Yankees last fall was their line up due to the lack of clutch hits. This year, the lineup is centered around Robinson Cano who has been on a tear as of late having 24 hits in his last 39 at-bats (.615) and has nine straight multi-hit games. He has brought up his average from .293 on September 24 to .313 at the end of the season. Setting the table for him will be Derek Jeter, who led baseball with 216 hits. Production is a must from guys like Rodriguez, Teixeira and Curtis Granderson if the Yankees are trying to capture title number 28. Granderson was second in baseball with 43 home runs and will need some long flies to help the Bombers advance. Another hot bat to keep an eye on is mid-season acquisition, Ichiro Suzuki who is in the playoffs for the first time in his career. No doubt he will want to come out and provide a solid bat, but if he presses, he could struggle.
Having to face this Yankee lineup is no easy task. That responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the Orioles pitching staff. The Baltimore staff has been pieced together and has no true ‘ace’ but says their number one guy is the one starting the game in front of them. It is a true team mentality that the Orioles support in Camden Yards. Game one starter will be Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.43 ERA) as he takes the mound in front of a rocking Baltimore crowd. Game two will be in the hands of Wei-Yin Chen (12-11, 4.02 ERA) and game three is on Miguel Gonzalez (9-4, 3.25 ERA). These three young pitchers will have their hands full trying to keep the Yankees off the board and allow their offense to stay in each game. Backing them up is the band of brothers that makes up the Orioles bullpen, a group that posted a 3.00 ERA this season- a franchise best. Closer Jim Johnson led baseball with 51 saves but doesn’t have the velocity or movement that every other closer does. His split-finger fastball is tough for hitters to drive, but hits are definitely manageable against the young hurler.
The lineup for the O’s is young and talented. They are not afraid to strike out, which is shown most by Mark Reynolds. Every batter in the lineup takes strong hacks at the dish and tries to drive the ball. They will steal bases with Robert Andino and Manny Machado. They will hit home runs with Reynolds and seasoned veteran Jim Thome. All-around their best offensive player is Adam Jones, who is as clutch as they come. His four extra inning home runs led the league as he was at the center of “Oriole Magic.” If the Orioles are going to continue their magical season and move on against the Yankees, this line up will have to continue their magic with timely hits and solid defense.
These two rivals know each other very well as they split the season series with the Orioles outscoring the Yanks 52-50 in those 18 games, talk about even. Both teams are without major pieces with the Yankees missing Rivera, a playoff magician and long-time Orioles Nick Markakis is out for the season after being hit by a Sabathia pitch in September. Each of these players are big parts of what each team is all about. The void that Rivera leaves will be magnified in the playoffs, but Rafael Soriano has proven he is a shutdown closer that the Yankees can rely on. Both Thome and Chris Davis will be asked to play a part in making up the difference in production without Markakis.
I like what the Yankees bring to the field in terms of experience and talent, where the Orioles bring youth and enthusiasm. The Yankees have the edge in starting pitching and their lineup. The bullpen edge is in favor of the Orioles, as they look to shutdown the Yankees big bats. Jeffery Maier won’t be in attendance this year, but I don’t believe the Yankees need that to happen again to beat the O’s this time around. If there are any 12-year-old Yankee fans reading this that will be at the games, bring your gloves and be ready just in case!
Let’s go Yankees!
You can follow me on Twitter @Justin_McElrath for in-game updates and more Yankee news!