If I were a Yankees fan, I’d be afraid — very afraid. Of course, as I’ve said all season, whenever I look at the pitching staff I’m afraid. But in addition to being afraid all season, I’ve also been wrong all season, so maybe I’m wrong now. Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing here, but the numbers I’m seeing tossed around by most analysts are, I think, very misleading.
Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball, and he’s going against the Yankees tonight. C.C. Sabathia is very good, but he’s not in Verlander’s league — no one else is, either — and Sabathia has not been a great pitcher over the last third of the season. To be honest, I’ve never thought he was a great big-game pitcher anyway, but since they’re playing at Yankee Stadium, I guess it’s close to being a toss-up.
But what if the best pitcher in baseball does what he’s supposed to do and wins tonight? Where does that leave the Yankees?
Now to the numbers: Yankee fans are touting the team’s surprising finish in ERA, 3.73, fourth-best in the AL, against Detroit’s seventh-best 4.04. A big chunk of the Tigers’ ERA, though, comes from the mediocrities who fill their fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, and in a best-of-five series, you’re not likely to use your fourth and fifth starters except maybe as spot relievers.
When we get to game two Saturday night, the Tigers seem to have another big advantage, with Doug Fister pitching against the surprising Ivan Nova. Fister, acquired by Detroit from Seattle, was only 11-13 to Nova’s 16-4, but he has been a much better pitcher, with an ERA of 2.83 to Nova’s 3.70. You have to wait until the third game for the Yankees to have an edge, with Freddy Garcia (12-8, 3.62) against Max Scherzer (15-9, 4.43). Freddy Garcia, no matter how you twist his numbers, inspires no confidence in me in a must-win situation. (I’m not even going to speculate about what might happen if the Yankees and Tigers have to go to a fourth starter in game four.)
We all know where the Yankees have an edge, and it’s a big one: bullpen depth. Building and maintaining a bullpen has always been what Joe Girardi does best, so let’s go ahead and say it: The relief corps is the primary reason the Yankees won the division this year. They had the best bullpen ERA in the league (3.12), while the Tigers had one of the worst (3.93, good for 11th).
So, of course, what the Yankees will want to do is try and shorten the game to seven innings. In some instance, they may try to shorten it to six innings, with the ‘Bama Hamma Dave Robertson or Mariano Rivera pitching two innings. And maybe a game where they both pitch two innings. But they can’t do that unless they’re ahead by the sixth inning, and against Verlander and Fister …
Let’s leave it like this: If the Yankees don’t beat Verlander tonight, I don’t think they can win. Not when it’s a three-win series that moves to Detroit on Monday. But if you’re a Yankee fan, you can take comfort in the fact that I’ve been wrong all year.