MLB Postseason Preview: Tigers vs. Yankees

Detroit Tigers (88-74) at New York Yankees (95-67)

OVERVIEW

How the-opposite-of-fitting that in a year dominated by Cinderella stories—Chicago leading the AL Central for most the year; Oakland’s improbable comeback in the West; Baltimore’s first playoff appearance since before Monica Lewinsky was famous—it’s the Yankees and Tigers left in the ALCS. Both teams were expected to repeat as division winners, and both actually had somewhat disappointing regular seasons: Detroit trailed the White Sox for most of the year, and New York didn’t clinch until the last day of the season. The ALCS is also nothing new to either team, with both teams having taken turns losing to Texas the last two years. And if it weren’t for last night’s game in Washington, we’d be talking about the Tigers and Yankees as the biggest dream-killers of all: Justin Verlander stopped what looked like yet another improbable Oakland comeback in its tracks, and New York topped Baltimore with repeated late-inning heroics. In the regular season matchups between these two teams, the Yankees took six of ten from Detroit.

LINEUPS

Detroit didn’t hit much in its series against Oakland: The Tigers scored only 17 runs in five games, and six of those runs came on non-RBI plays. Nobody on the team had an especially good series offensively—Omar Infante was the only regular to hit over .300, and he had only one extra-base hit. A lot of the problem can likely be attributed to great pitching by the A’s, but Detroit needs to get more production out of its big hitters, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Though Fielder did homer in Game 4, neither of those guys did enough to carry the offense, which is the only way the Tigers offense can get carried. Perhaps most troubling: Cabrera and Fielder only walked once apiece in five games. Again, this is likely the result of facing a staff with great control—Oakland pitching walked only seven batters in the series—but Cabrera and Fielder need to at least get on base if they’re not driving in runs.

New York’s lineup scored even fewer runs than Detroit’s, and its struggles were well-documented. Obviously a lot of attention was paid to Alex Rodriguez’s troubles at the plate—a lot of attention is always paid to Alex Rodriguez’s troubles at the plate—but that almost obscured the fact that, aside from Derek Jeter and two notable at-bats by Raul Ibanez, nobody on the Yankees hit in the Division Series: Nick Swisher went 2-for-18, Curtis Granderson went 3-for-19 with nine strikeouts, Ichiro Suzuki was 5-for-23, and Robinson Cano, who had been on a tear in the final month of the regular season, went 2-for-22. With that said, the Yankees did two things that can make up for low averages: They walked and they hit for power. New York drew 17 walks against Baltimore, and 13 of their 38 hits went for extra bases. Going against Detroit’s quartet of righties means Ibanez should work his way into the starting lineup more, but he likely won’t be enough to carry the Yankees for seven games—they will need at least one of their big name hitters to bust out of their slumps.

ROTATIONS

After a rough postseason last year, Justin Verlander (thankfully) put to rest any doubts about his ability to pitch in the playoffs by throwing two dominant games against Oakland. His decisive performance in Game 5, though, coupled with this year’s compressed schedule* leave Verlander unable to pitch again until Game 3 of the ALCS. At the very least, this removes any chance of the Tigers ace getting three starts in the series, though it sets him up for a potential Game 7. The rest of Detroit’s staff, though not as brilliant as Verlander, had a great Division Series. Doug Fister, who gets the ball tonight, struck out eight over seven innings in Game 2, and has been great since the All-Star break. Anibal Sanchez is lined up to pitch tomorrow on regular rest, and Max Scherzer, who was in line to win Game 4 before the bullpen blew it, will go on Wednesday. That bullpen, which blew two saves against the A’s, will be the major point of concern for Detroit.

*Which NPI enthusiastically endorses as one of few benefits of this year’s format.

Athough New York pitched to an even better team ERA than Detroit in the Division Series, the Yankees have more rotation questions going into the ALCS. The lack of an off-day leaves their rotation uncertain. Andy Pettitte will start tonight, but New York has nobody ready to pitch Game 2 on regular rest: Hiroki Kuroda could go on three days rest, but the Yankees have been trying to give him more days off as he’s tired down the stretch. But they didn’t add Freddy Garcia or Ivan Nova to the ALCS roster, so unless Joe Girardi wants to give the ball to David Phelps or Derek Lowe for a spot start, Kuroda will likely work on short rest, with Phelps/Lowe waiting in the wings. CC Sabathia, who was nearly as impressive against Baltimore as Verlander was against Oakland, will likely start Game 3, also on short rest. Although Sabathia has pitched—and pitched well—on short rest in Octobers past, he’s never done it in a year where he had two separate stints on the DL. The Yankees bullpen, at least, was impressive—and relatively well-rested given two extra-inning games, since every start worked into the seventh—against the Orioles, although Joba Chamberlain hasn’t pitched since getting hit on the arm with a line drive in Game 4.

Lingering Questions (from Tim)

You said you weren’t really scared of Baltimore going into that ALDS; at what point, if any, did the Orioles finally start to frighten you?

I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but they never really frightened me. I probably haven’t given Baltimore enough credit this year, but I still have a “kid brother” view of them, and the ALDS unfolded in much the same way as the regular season: The Orioles never went away, but also never took the lead. And since they were never really in command of the series, I was mainly frustrated by the Yankees’ hitting, and not any aspect of Baltimore’s team. My attitude towards the Orioles this season can best be summed up by Baltimore’s own, Avon Barksdale.

 

On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do the Tigers frighten you?

Well, Justin Verlander frightens me 3. Cabrera frightens me 2. 3+2=5. So 5. The rest of the Tigers don’t really frighten me, but the possibility of facing Verlander in a Game 7 is terrifying.

 

The baseball world demands Verlander and Sabathia in Game 7; your thoughts?

As a baseball fan, I obviously would love to see such a matchup. It would be like last year’s Chris Carpenter/Roy Halladay, except actually compelling. On the other hand, as I hinted above, such a game would terrify me as a Yankee fan. I don’t know if I could withstand the physical toll of such a game, particularly at the end of what I expect to be a competitive series.

 

Comment on the unfairness of the Yankees being forced to alter their rotation here because of the purported benefit of starting their previous series with an extra day of rest.

Well, I did not realize that was rationale behind this setup. Obviously I’m not thrilled about it—I’d much rather be in Detroit’s position. I’ve always thought the benefits of extra rest in the postseason are overstated. They can be crucial if you have an injured team, but they can also kill momentum, which is what seems to have happened to Cano. It’s just unnatural to play for six months with only one real break of more than a day, and then have all these layoffs during the playoffs. And, of course, it allows Stars and Scrubs teams like Detroit to reuse their Stars over and over again.

 

Sanchez and Scherzer were good against the A’s. How surprised would you be if they continued that success against the Yankees?

Very surprised. It’s not that Sanchez and Scherzer aren’t good, but the difference between Oakland’s lineup and New York’s is the difference between the second-worst offense in the AL and the second-best. Of course, the Yankee lineup didn’t look like it could hit anyone in the Division Series, but I don’t expect that continue. Scherzer and Sanchez won’t get knocked around, but the Yankees should be able to get into Detroit’s vulnerable bullpen early against those guys.

 

If I were to tell you that the Yankees would be trailing by one run entering the eighth inning of every game of this series, how confident would you be that they would still manage to win it, given the Detroit bullpen?

Of every game? That would take a pretty amazing series to come back four times, even against a relatively weak bullpen. While Detroit’s bullpen has been vulnerable, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Jose Valverde saved 49 games without blowing any last year and finished fifth in Cy Young voting. Joaquin Benoit was lights out for the Rays in 2010, and pretty good last year as well. Basically, bullpens are fickle things, and even though the Tigers haven’t gotten good relief so far this October, that can change quickly.

Having Said That, given your scenario I’d pick the Yankees in five, with Raul Ibanez hitting seven home runs.

 

Should—not will, should—Alex Rodriguez start any of these games against an exclusively right-handed rotation? Is he even worth using as a pinch-hitter, since bringing him in to face Phil Coke would almost certainly lead Jim Leyland to bring in a better right-handed pitcher?

I’m going to assume this question is (mostly) facetious. Rodriguez should obviously start every game, unless he continues to look helpless and the lineup is in desperate need of shaking up. A-Rod’s struggles against righties this year were greatly exaggerated: It’s not as if he’s some platoon player. His numbers against right-handed starters were actually better than those against lefty starters. Basically, in a year when he missed ¼ of the season, Rodriguez had some trouble with right-handed relievers. When you combine this with a down year overall and fans’ natural hyperbolic tendencies about A-Rod, people are overreacting to 16 truly terrible at-bats.

 

How would you draw up New York’s rotation for this series? Is it better to use Sabathia on three days’ rest in Game 3, or save him for regular rest in Game 4 and use him on short rest if needed in Game 7?

Unless there are some lingering health issues, or fatigue from all the pitches thrown against Baltimore, I’d use Sabathia in Game 3 no matter what happens in the first two games. You’re probably going to need a great performance from your starter to beat Verlander, and Sabathia’s the only guy in New York’s rotation I trust to do that. Sabathia was great on short rest in 2009 and has been successful the handful of times he’s done it during the regular season. He’s older now and he’s coming off a subpar season by his own standards, but he proved what he can do in the Division Series.

 

Who ya got?

Tonight’s game will be another low-scoring affair for both teams, with Fister out-dueling Pettitte. The Yankees will mount a comeback against the bullpen, but it will fall just short, setting up a narrative that will recur throughout the series.

The Yankee offense will wake up tomorrow, knocking Sanchez out in the fifth and turning it into a blowout against the bullpen. Rodriguez will hit a home run, but it will be when the Yankees are already up by three, and fans will boo him for not hitting it earlier.

Verlander will be great again in Game 3, while Sabathia is less effective: He’ll get pulled in seventh, after giving up a home run to Cabrera or Delmon Young (I’m not sure who), and the Tigers will win 5-1.

Phil Hughes and Max Scherzer are both surprisingly good in Game 4, leading Cal Ripken to say, “This is the pitchers duel we thought we were going to get last night, huh?” as the game is scoreless going into the sixth. New York scratches a run against Scherzer, but Detroit takes the lead on a two-run homer by Fielder in the bottom half. Jim Leyland pulls Scherzer due to a high pitch count and the bullpen implodes: They give up two in the seventh, two more in the eighth, and one in the ninth.

Fister pitches well again, and takes a 4-1 lead into the eighth. Despite being at 103 pitches, Leland leaves him in to start the inning, despite issuing pre-game assurances that he had no doubts in his bullpen. After walking Jeter on four pitches and getting Ichiro to hit to pop up, Fister surrenders a two-run homer to Robinson Cano and Benoit finishes the inning. Leyland goes to Valverde in the ninth. After walking two, he gives up a two-run double to Russell Martin and the Yankees win 5-4.

In Game 6, Sanchez can’t get out of the sixth inning, but the bullpen 3-2/3 innings without allowing a run and the Tigers pull even on the strength of home runs by Fielder and Cabrera.

This, of course, sets up the Sabathia/Verlander showdown the nation has been waiting for. Verlander is dominant, striking out 10 and allowing only three hits going into the ninth. Sabathia is less superb, but still doesn’t surrender a run despite having to pitch through several rallies. Derek Jeter leads off the ninth with a slow grounder that Cabrera misplays, though it’s ruled a hit. Ichiro fights through a 12-pitch at-bat before striking out. After a wild pitch sends Jeter to second, Verlander intentionally walks Cano to set up the force. Teixeira beats out a double play ball to keep the inning alive… for Alex Rodriguez. After taking two called strikes down the middle to a chorus of boos, Rodriguez chases a ball in the dirt, but manages to loft it just over the glove of a leaping Quintin Berry, sending the Yankees to the Word Series.

In a surprise twist, Cody Eppley is named ALCS MVP.

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