Before the American League Division Series, I predicted the New York Yankees would sweep the Minnesota Twins in three straight games on the basis of the superior pitching. Now the Yankees move on to the American League Championship Series and a showdown with Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers. Needless to say, with Lee and home-field advantage, the Rangers present a stiffer challenge. Who will win?
The Yankees hit .314 as a team in the ALDS against the Twins and they hit .360 with runners in scoring position. It also looks like manager Joe Girardi’s decision to rest injured players in September to get them healthy also paid big dividends.
The hitters will also begin the ALCS with a full five days of rest. For a veteran club like the Yankees, that could be a huge edge heading into the series. The Yankees begin the series without a major injury to any of their hitters.
Curtis Granderson led the Yankees with a .455 average in the ALDS, picking up where he left off when he finished the last month of the season with nine home runs and 25 RBIs. Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira also hit well during the series. Brett Gardner, who hit .200, was the only regular who struggled in the series.
The Rangers hit .253 as a team in their best-of-five series with the Tampa Bay Rays. More alarming was they hit a dreadful 14-for-66 (.212) at home in the two games they lost. Oddly, the Rangers did not hit well with runners in scoring position. They were 6-for-30 (.200) and they were 1-for-11 (.091) at home.
Ian Kinsler had a red-hot ALDS with three home runs, six RBIs and a .444 batting average. Nelson Cruz added three solo home runs and hit .400. However, Josh Hamilton, nursing broken ribs, hit .111, third baseman Michael Young hit .150 and first baseman Mitch Moreland hit .200.
Of course, the Rangers played a very aggressive style on the bases against the Rays with bunts, steals and taking extra bases. Oddly it is the same style of play that the Rays employ. I would suspect that the Rangers will try to do the same in the ALCS.
The Yankees have their share of speed, too. Gardner is the best base stealer in this series and Granderson and Jeter will run on occasion. But the Yankees will not run the bases recklessly and give up outs.
There is a decided hitting edge to the Yankees here. With their power and circular lineup, they scored the most runs in the majors this season. They also can play a running game but they prefer to play it smart. They love to run when they are ahead.
The Rangers are not getting production from Young and Hamilton and it hurt them, especially in the Rangers Ballpark at Arlington. Hamilton is their only left-handed power threat and the Rangers are going to see a lot of right-handed relievers to neutralize Vladimir Guerrero, Kinsler and Cruz.
The Yankees committed the fewest errors in the American League this season and they committed no errors in the ALDS with the Twins.
The strength of the defense is their Gold Glove infield around the horn of Alex Rodriguez (two Gold Gloves), Derek Jeter (four), Robinson Cano (who is likely to win his first this season) and Mark Teixeira (three).
The outfield features speed in left and center (Gardner and Granderson) and some good outfield arms (Gardner and Swisher combined for 22 outfield assists this season).
The only weaknesses are Posada’s tendency towards passed balls and his poor arm behind the plate and Swisher does not have the best range in right-field. Girardi likes to use Greg Golson as a defensive replacement for Swisher late in games when the Yankees have a lead. Golson has great range and an electric throwing arm.
The Rangers are not a very good defensive club, particularly in the infield. The left side of the infield (Young and Elvis Andrus) committed 35 errors this season. In contrast, the Yankees’ left side if Rodriguez and Jeter committed 13.
Kinsler is also very shaky in the field at second base.
The outfield is excellent. Hamilton in center and Cruz in either left or right are good fielders with good throwing arms. Julio Bourbon has great range and David Murphy committed only one error all season.
The Rangers have a solid defensive catcher in Bengie Molina with a good arm behind the plate. In addition, his pitch-blocking ability has not slipped with age. He had only one passed ball all season.
Backup catcher Matt Treanor can cut down a running game. He threw out a higher percentage of base-stealers than Molina (39% vs. 31% for Molina). He is not as skilled as Molina but he is not much of step down either.
The Yankees likely will be cautious in the running game in this series.
But there is no doubt the Yankees have the big edge in defense. They do not make many errors and they also play solid fundamentals by hitting cutoff men and not giving the opposition extra bases.
The Rangers are likely to commit some errors in this series and the Yankees are also good at forcing the other team into mental or physical lapses.
The Rangers and the Yankees split the season series and that is why a lot of pundits are focused on saying the Rangers’ hitters present problems for the Yankees.
Here is something to chew on: The Yankees swept a three-game series with Texas at Yankee Stadium in April with CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte winning two of the games. Sabathia, in fact, beat C.J. Wilson in the opener 5-1.
The teams split a two-game series in Arlington in August, both of them one-run games settled by the bullpens. But, against Lee and Wilson, the Yankees scored six runs on 13 hits and three walks in 11 2/3 innings (4.63 ERA).
In fact, in the second game, Lee tired and blew a 6-1 lead in a game the Yankees eventually won 7-6 after Lee left the game. In defense of Lee, though, he was suffering from severe back pain and eventually had to be shelved for a time to recover.
The Rangers then swept a three-game series in Texas in September, However, the Yankees started Javier Vazquez and A.J. Burnett in the first two games of that series, as they did in the two-game series in August. The Rangers won both of those games by one run.
In the finale, Lee dominated the Yankees, giving up only one run on two hits and three walks in 8 1/3 innings. However, his mound opponent was Dustin Moseley.
So although the Rangers won four games, they only faced Sabathia and Pettitte once and they did not face Phil Hughes at all.
Also take in to account the Yankees played that September series without Swisher and Gardner, who were out nursing injuries. The Yankees also did not play Jeter in the second game and Rodriguez in the finale. So the Rangers did not face the Yankees with their best lineup or their best pitchers in all three games.
The Yankees’ top three of Sabathia, Pettitte and Hughes were 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA in the ALDS. In the regular season, they were a combined 50-18 during the regular season with a 3.53 ERA.
The Rangers’ top three of Lee, Wilson and Colby Lewis were 3-0 with a 0.66 ERA against the Rays in their ALDS. In the regular season they were a combined 39-10 with a 3.41 ERA.
kees will be starting A.J. Burnett in Game 4. He was awful for most of the season with the Yankees. He was 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA. The Rangers will counter with Tommy Hunter in Game 4, who was 13-4 with a 3.73 ERA.
The Yankees have one big edge in this series. They will not face Lee until Game 3 and Lee also will only be available to pitch a potential Game 7. That means the Yankees will be starting their two winningest starters in the regular season (Sabathia and Hughes) against the Rangers’ No. 2 and No. 3 starters (Wilson and Lewis).
There is a good possibility the Rangers could be down 0-2 in the best-of-seven series before Lee even throws a pitch. The Yankees are also lined up well for Games 5, 6 and 7 with Sabathia, Hughes and Pettitte scheduled to pitch those games.
As a result, the Yankees have a very slight edge in pitching. If the Rangers want to win this series they will have to beat either Sabathia and Hughes in the first two games. That is going to be tall order. Hughes has not given up an earned run to the Rangers in his career in 11 1/3 innings.
The Rays’ ability to extend the series to five games really hurt the Rangers leading into the ALCS.
The Yankees strong starting pitching meant the bullpen was not used much in the ALDS. They pitched only seven innings and gave up just one earned run (1.29 ERA).
As usual, Mariano Rivera was two-for-two in save opportunities. Boone Logan and David Robertson were unscored upon. Kerry Wood pitched well as the setup man for Rivera in the first two games but faltered in Game 3, giving up an earned run after a regular season in which he had given up only one earned run since he joined the Yankees on Aug. 1.
Joba Chamberlain, Dustin Moseley and Sergio Mitre were not used in the ALDS.
This group has been a strength of the Yankees after the All-Star break and they look primed for another good run in the ALCS. When Rivera and Wood are on top of their games, the Yankees effectively reduce the game to seven innings.
While the Rangers’ starters were at the top of their games against the Rays, their bullpen did not do a very good job at all.
Closer Neftali Feliz did not have a save and he posted a 6.75 ERA in two games. The Rangers also enter this postseason without former closer and setup man Frank Francisco with a strained right ribcage.
Lefties Derek Holland and Darren Oliver also did not pitch well. They combined for an ERA of 5.00 in five appearances. Hard-throwing rookie Alexi Ogando blew a save opportunity.
The only real effective reliever the Rangers had was right-handed side-armer Darren O’Day, who was perfect in his two innings over four appearances.
Feliz showed, at age 22, he might have been a little too amped up in his first postseason. But, remember that only Oliver has extensive postseason experience in this group and the absence of Francisco makes the Rangers a bit more vulnerable in this series.
The Yankees have a decided edge here. Veterans like Wood and Rivera are far superior to the young guns of Feliz and Ogando.
The Yankees feature a platoon at DH with lefty Lance Berkman and righty Marcus Thames. They combined to hit .364 with two home runs and four RBIs against the Twins. The Yankees only used Golson as a defensive replacement in right-field for Swisher.
They did not use Austin Kearns, Ramiro Pena and Francisco Cervelli at all. With the starters healthy and the team in command of all three games, there really was no need to use them.
The Rangers have Treanor, Jorge Cantu, Julio Bourbon and Jeff Francouer in a platoon with David Murphy in the outfield.
This group was a combined 2-for-26 (.077) in the ALDS.
This is not a strength of either team but the Rangers definitely use their bench more. They have some former starters from the regular season in Francouer, Cantu and Murphy. Bourbon also played extensively when Hamilton was hurt.
The Rangers have a slight edge here. But their weak showing in the ALDS is telling.
Ron Washington is managing in his first postseason with a team that has won its first postseason series in franchise history. Washington won’t be awed by the “big stage” but there could be a few players who might be.
Washington plays an aggressive style by allowing Andrus, Kinsler, Hamilton and Cruz to run the bases at will. He even will send Guerrero and Molina stole a base in Game 5. They also can hit for power with Kinsler, Cruz, Guerrero, Hamilton and Young capable to hitting a ball out of any park.
However, the Rays silenced the Rangers in two games at Arlington and, if it were not for Lee, the Rays may have won the series in Game 5.
Girardi is not seen as a great manager because of the team he manages and their payroll. But his decision to rest his starters in September proved to be a huge in the ALDS with the Twins.
The Yankees pitching staff entered the ALDS full of questions. But Sabathia, Pettitte and Hughes answered them. The offense was able to come from behind in the first two games and they broke the game open early in Game 3.
That made Girardi look very smart. In this series he will have to manage more and there is no doubt he will be able to keep up with Washington on tactics.
This area is even.
The Rangers do have home-field advantage with Game 6 and Game 7 (if necessary) in Arlington. However, the Yankees did not seem to have a problem with that in the ALDS and they played well on the road all season.
The Rangers’ biggest intangible is their aggressive style of play. The bunts, the steals and taking their chances on the bases. The Antlers. Not mention they have power. The Claw.
But the Yankees are the most fundamentally sound team in baseball. They rarely make errors that give the other team an edge. As long as Jeter is playing shortstop you can count on him to make a play or two that can takes outs away from the other team.
He has done it so many times, the Rangers are going to have to be careful taking extra bases or rounding the bags in this series.
For that reason the intangibles belong to the Yankees.
PREDICTION: YANKEES IN SIX