Detroit Tigers (95-67; 1st place, AL Central) vs New York Yankees (97-65; 1st place, AL East)
The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games, but that’s not an accurate gauge as to how they played this season.
Up until August, their position was precarious in terms of whether they would even make the playoffs; they made a series of trades to get Delmon Young, Doug Fister and Wilson Betemit; the Indians—who had led the Tigers by as much as 8 games in May—came apart.
It was Justin Verlander who carried the Tigers on his shoulders before they took command of the division by ripping off a 12 game winning streak in September. It will be Justin Verlander who will lead the Tigers past the Yankees or into the winter after a first round playoff loss.
They have to ride their horse.
Manager Jim Leyland is insisting that Verlander will pitch games 1 and 5 and under no circumstances is pitching in game 4.
Fister has been masterful since his acquisition from the Mariners with an 8-1 record and ERA under 2. He’s only allowed 11 homers in over 200 innings this season, but Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson have gotten to him; he lost his only start against the Yankees this season; it was his last start as a Mariner and he went 7 innings surrendering 3 runs on 7 hits.
Max Scherzer is starting game 3 and Rick Porcello game 4. Scherzer has a power fastball and wicked slider, but is either on or off—if he’s got his stuff and control, he’s nasty; if not, he gets hammered.
I wouldn’t trust Porcello in a game 4.
The Tigers bullpen before Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde is a question mark, but Leyland will push his starters further than he does in the regular season. Verlander’s pitch limit will be somewhere in the 140-150 range if necessary and since they’re insisting they’re not pitching him in game 4, don’t expect a quick hook if he gets off to a bad start in game 1.
The Tigers have to decide what to do with their veteran bats who’ve played sparingly in 2011. Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen have handled CC Sabathia in their careers, but will Leyland rely on his vets or stick with the players he was using for the bulk of the time over the second half?
Guillen has a calf issue and is probably out for the ALDS.
I’d play Ordonez against Sabathia.
Ordonez is also 7 for 14 in his career against Mariano Rivera.
The Yankees are starting rookie Ivan Nova in game 2; soft-tossing veteran Freddy Garcia in game 3. Nova and the Tigers don’t have much history. Garcia, however, has a long history with several of the Tigers hitters and has gotten blasted by Miguel Cabrera, Ordonez and Young. Yankees manager Joe Girardi will have a quick hook with Garcia and A.J. Burnett could be important in game 3 if he’s needed to restore order after a Tigers outburst. Burnett’s numbers against the Tigers are quite good.
The Tigers do not want to be nursing 1-run leads in the late innings against the Yankees; they need to build a bigger lead and hold it.
Keys for the Yankees: Beat Verlander; don’t let any pitcher other than Verlander beat them; make Verlander work and get his pitch count up to get him out of game 1 early; get into the Tigers middle-relief; score a lot to make moot their pitching issues; A.J. Burnett; end the series before game 5; Verlander, Verlander, Verlander.
Other than Sabathia, the Yankees aren’t going to mess around and leave their starters in the game if they’re getting roughed up. Burnett will be in the bullpen; presumably Bartolo Colon will be on the roster—they’ll have veteran arms to turn to if Nova or Garcia struggle.
If this were a best 4 of 7 series, I’d seriously consider shifting either Sabathia or Verlander so they didn’t have to pitch against each other. With a 3 of 5 series, that’s not really an option.
Nick Swisher is only batting .167 in 54 career plate appearances vs Verlander, but has 3 career homers. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Brett Gardner have very solid numbers against him and Ramiro Pena of all people is 3 for 5 in his career facing Verlander. The Yankees needn’t be terrified of the Tigers ace because they’ve hit him before, but they do not want to be dealing with a game 5 and Ivan Nova or anyone other than Sabathia scheduled to pitch; I don’t care how mentally tough Nova is, that’s not a fair position for a rookie to be in and if it happens, they’re going to lose.
Girardi has said that Posada is going to DH in the series and that’s a good move—I always defer to my experienced veterans who’ve been through playoff battles before and if this is Posada’s final post-season in his career, he’ll be looking to end it with an exclamation point.
I wouldn’t be concerned about facing Porcello—if there’s a game 4 and the Yankees are trailing in the series 2-1, they’re going to maul him.
Valverde is one of the best closers in baseball that no one knows. That said, he can lose command and walk people; he also gives up some homers. Andruw Jones is 3 for 7 in his career vs Valverde with a homer and he’s the type of pitcher upon whom Robinson Cano will feast in a big spot.
If the Yankees use Rafael Soriano with a lead, he’s going to give up a homer or three—he cannot abide post-season pressure, or any kind of pressure. He’s pitched 3 post-season innings in his career and allowed 2 homers including a backbreaker for the Rays last season in the ninth inning of game 5 against the Rangers and Ian Kinsler.
The Yankees won’t be worried about Verlander in game 1; if it gets to game 5, they will be worried about him. A lot.
What will happen.
I wouldn’t anticipate mutual dominance between Verlander and Sabathia in game 1. In fact, it could degenerate into a shootout between the bullpens. If Verlander gets knocked out early, would that change Leyland’s strategy in a game 4? Would he bring his ace back on short rest if he only throws 60 or so pitches in game 1?
If they’re down 2 games to 1, I would.
The other starters in the Yankees rotation are only going to be in games as long as they’re getting outs and will be subject to a quicker hook that you or Girardi’s Binder could fathom. Burnett is decried and despised by Yankees fans, but they’d better hope “good A.J.” shows up when that bullpen door opens because if they need him in game 2, 3 or 5 he has to pitch well.
If the Tigers get a big performance out of Fister and/or Scherzer, the Yankees will be in a lot of trouble. I’d expect one to pitch well. Either game 2 or 3 will be won late and is dependent on whose bullpen performs better, which specialists—Boone Logan of the Yankees; Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth—get the job done. Logan would be called on to pitch to Alex Avila. The Tigers are righty-heavy.
Will the young Schlereth be able to deal with Cano? With Granderson? Cano’s 1 for 4 vs Schlereth with a homer; Granderson 0 for 2 with 2 walks. Coke allowed homers to lefties Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez in game 5 of the 2009 World Series while pitching for the Yankees so he’s not exactly frightening to good-hitting lefties. But the Tigers won’t have a choice. The best case for the Tigers is to not get it to that point.
Two veterans—Ordonez and Posada—with excellent careers behind them and the windows closing on those careers will see important at bats in big situations.
The Tigers will win 2 of the first 3 games.
The Yankees will batter Porcello in game 4; this series will come down to a game 5 in Yankee Stadium with Verlander standing between the Yankees and the ALCS.
And he’s going to slam the door in their faces.
The Tigers and Verlander are taking them out.
PREDICTION: TIGERS IN FIVE.