Everyone is saying that tonight’s game, the first of the American League Championship Series, is critical for both the Yankees and Rangers. It appears more critical, though, for the Yankees for two very simple reasons.
One, of course, is Cliff Lee. If Lee doesn’t start until Game 3, then if there’s a seventh game he’ll get the ball against, probably, Andy Pettitte. The other reason is A.J. Burnett, who will be pitching in Game Four at Yankee Stadium against Texas’s Tommy Hunter, who is 13-4 in the regular season. Despite having the most productive batting order in the major leagues to support him, Burnett lost 15 of 25 decisions this year,
The most important change in strategy for the series was announced yesterday by Joe Girardi: the Yankees will be starting Phil Hughes, number two in the rotation, and moving Pettitte to the third spot.
Why has Girardi switched his rotation from the formula that brought such spectacular success in the ALDS against the Twins? Again, for two very good reasons: first, Pettitte is just 2-4 with 8.22 ERA at Arlington — yet another good reason why the Yankees don’t want to play a Game 7 there against Cliff Lee. Second, Hughes doesn’t pitch well at all at home, or at least he didn’t this season. This is a bullet the Yankees dodged against Minnesota — Hughes gave up 20 of his 25 home runs at the Stadium and had a 3.47 ERA on the road compared to 4.66 at home. After he beat the Twins 6-1 last Saturday to clinch the first round of the playoffs, Alex Rodriguez told Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Reiter, “tonight was kind of a coming-out party for him. That was Hello, America.” Let’s hope now that Hughes is out he stays out. (Hughes, BTW, is 2-0 with 0.000 ERA at Arlington.)
All of which means, that, as Girardi used to say, the most important game in the postseason isn’t the first, it’s the third — the assumption being that usually with two good teams, the first two games are going to be split. But let’s not diminish the importance of C.C. Sabathia beating C.J. Wilson tonight.
The Yankees can still win the pennant if they lose, but a victory tilts the odds overwhelmingly in their favor. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees, who led the major leagues in runs scored, have the best hitting team in the AL even when adjusted for playing in a great hitters’ park like Yankee Stadium. The Rangers, on the other hand, are just seventh best according to Prospectus.
Some other factors to consider:
Josh Hamilton — the best hitter on either team over the course of he regular season, leading the league in batting and slugging — has been off his mark since returning from a bout with broken ribs that kept him out for the entire month of September. He went just 2 for 18 in their division series against the Rays. If Hamilton doesn’t hit big, there would seem to be almost no way Texas can win.
C.J. Wilson, tonight’s starter for the Rangers, walked more batters than any pitcher in the AL, averaging 4.1 free passes per nine innings. This could kill him against the Yankees, who were second in the league in drawing bases on balls, behind only the Rays. Texas was 8th.
But John Harper in today’s Daily News paints the scariest possible scenario for Yankee fans: “On second thought, what if it’s not such a break for the Yankees that Cliff Lee can’t pitch until Game 3? Really, it’s only natural to presume that delaying Lee’s impact on the series helps the defending champs, but that’s also presuming they go back to New York with two wins in their pocket. Anything less than this thing gets real scary real fast for the Yankees.”
If the Yankees split the first two games in Texas, the tipper is Game 3 with Lee facing Pettitte. Let’s be honest – the Yanks don’t want to face Lee anywhere, and if they lose that one, Game 4, with A.J. Burnett on the mound, could be the next-to-the-last nail in the coffin.
“He [Girardi] may turn out to be right all around,” writes Harper. But going in, “It seems to make more sense to have Pettitte help the Yankees avoid a Game 7 rather than actually pitch it.”