Around The Bases Vol IXX: American League Divisional Series Preview PT I

american_league_11The season just didn’t want to end. But, after an extra game, and several very exciting extra innings, end it did. In the bottom of the 12th inning of game 163 between the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, Twins speedster Carlos Gomez finally crossed home plate to bring the regular season to a close, giving the Twins the right to meet the New York Yankees in the first round of the American League playoffs. Detroit, fittingly after now losing 6 of their last 8 games, and squandering the 7 game lead they had just 30 days ago, gets to go home and start working on next season’s issues.

The American League Divisional Series between the Twins and Yankees begins today, not even 24 hours after the 1-game playoff ended yesterday. Here, at Around the Bases, we’ll take a look at that series, and tomorrow we’ll take a look at the Red Sox – Angels series which starts on Thursday night.

MINNESOTA TWINS vs.      nyy                             NEW YORK YANKEES

As I’ve already mentioned, the Yankees have two distinct advantages right off the bat, and that’s before we even start talking about players and records: Minnesota is coming off of an extremely emotional game that lasted 12 innings less than 24 hours ago, and if that’s not bad enough, they’re plane didn’t land in New York until after 3 O’clock this morning. That’s only 14 hours before game time.

Now, let’s talk about some of the players.

In the off-season, the Yankees spent a bloody fortune on a few players. Their goal: Get to the World Series. The 103-win season was very nice, but this is where it really matters. This is what the Steinbrenners paid for. The post-season. And we’re going to see the product of that well-spent cash in the first two games.

In game one, they will trot out former Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia. Sabathia has been dominant all year, finishing in a first place tie with 19 wins. His 3.37 ERA was good enough for 4th in the AL, and his 197 Ks ranked him 7th. Sabathia has to chase his post-season demons. In 4 previous series over three seasons with the Indians, he has a very high 7.92 ERA. He has given up 33 hits for 22 runs in 25 innings, along with 24 Ks and 22 walks. But, he is 1-0 against the Twins this year, with a 1.25 ERA.

Since the Twins have already used Scott Baker against the Tigers, they will have to send out rookie leftie Brian Duensing. Duensing didn’t appear much this season, pitching in only 24 games. This will only be the 10th start of his career. So far, he is 5-2 with a 3.64 ERA. In his one game against the Yankees, he pitched 2.2 innings in relief and gave up 2 hits, 4 walks, and 4 runs, for a 13.5 ERA, his highest against any team.

Game 2 already has an interesting twist, and it surrounds Yankees projected starter A.J. Burnett and who is going to catch him. On Monday, Yankees manager Joe Girardi announced that Burnett was going to start game 2. He also announced that Jose Molina was going to catch him, not regular catcher and team leader Jorge Posada. Also, it seems that Hideki Matsui is scheduled to play DH, so that leaves Posada sitting on the bench, a move he is not necessarily happy with. His post season numbers are good: 40 games, .263 average, 4 HR, 10 RBI. But not quite as good as Matsui: 41 games, .302 average, 6 HR, 26 RBI. Plus, Burnett just is more comfortable with Molina behind the plate, and that’s just as important.

Burnett hasn’t had the great season the Yankees hoped for when they signed him in the off-season (13-9, 4.04 ERA), but he can make up for it with a good post-season. Amazingly, this will be his first. He was still recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2003 when the Florida Marlins won the World Series. In 2 games this season against the Twins, Burnett is 1-0, and has given up 4 runs on 13 hits with 9 strikeouts and 10 walks in 13 innings pitches. Twins catcher Joe Mauer has done pretty well against him, going 5 for 13 (.385) against him in his career.

The Twins will counter with Nick Blackburn, who went 11-11 with a 4.03 ERA this season. Blackburn is nothing if not consistent. He had the exact same record and nearly the exact same ERA (4.05) last season. He also started the exact same number of games (33) and had almost the same number of HR allowed (23 in ’08, 25 this season). And, if that’s not enough, last year he had 39 walks, this year gave up 41, and last season he had 96 strikeouts, compared to this year’s 98. Wow. Amazing, really. Anyway, Blackburn did face the Yankees once this season, and gave up 4 runs on 6 hits over 7.2 innings. He is not looking forward to facing 1B Mark Teixeira. Tex is batting 1.000 (6 for 6) against him in his career with 1 HR, 1 double, and 5 RBI. Derek Jeter has done well against him also, going 3 for 7 (.429) with 1 HR and 3 RBI.

The Yankees have one of the most powerful lineups in baseball, not just this year, but ever. Consider the following:
• The Yankees had five players with at least 25HR (Teixeira-39, Rodriguez-30, Swisher-29, Matsui-28, Cano-25), setting a franchise record (previous mark was four, set in 1938 with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey and Joe Gordon)
• They had seven players with at least 20HR (Damon-24, Posada-22), tying the ML record (1996 Orioles, 2000 Blue Jays, 2005 Rangers).
• The Yankees had a franchise-record nine players with at least 65 RBI (Cabrera, Cano, Damon, Jeter, Matsui, Posada, Rodriguez, Swisher, Teixeira), tying the ML record (Red Sox, 2003)
• They were the only club in the Majors this season with seven players with at least 75 RBI, tying their own franchise record (1939).
• They had nine players with at least 50 Runs and 50 RBI, tying the ML record for any team (‘96 Orioles and ’05 Rangers each had seven players with at least 50R, 20 HR and 50 RBI)

The Yankees led the Majors in runs (916), OBP (.362), and slugging (.478). They also finished second in batting (.283). They had the 3rd fewest strikeouts in the AL (1014) while having the most walks in the majors (663). They also showed great speed on the bases, stealing 111 times and getting caught only 28 times (79.9%), which ranked 3rd highest in the majors.
Individually, 1B Tiexiera, a certain MVP candidate, tied for the AL HR lead with Tampa’s Carlos Pena (39), and led the AL in RBI (122). His one appearance in the post-season, last year against the Red Sox, he hit .467 in 4 games. This year, against the Twins, he batted .483 with 7 HR and 11 RBI. In fact, he batted better against the Twins than any other opponent the Yankees faced this season.

When the Twins are up at bat, they have American League batting champ Joe Mauer (.365). Many experts have already selected Mauer as the AL MVP this year, mostly due to his .373 batting average since August 1st. And the way he carried the Twins the last month of the season.

The other Twins’ player who has really stepped up his game is Michael Cuddyer. Since regular first baseman Justin Morneau got injured in August, Cuddyer has been playing first, an unnatural position for him. He has no errors there and has really emerged as a team leader. However, he has not been very good against the Yankees this year, batting only .148 in 7 games.

The Twins’ closer, Joe Nathan, is one of the best in baseball. He finished this season 2nd in the AL in saves (47) with a 2.10 ERA, the 4th highest of AL relievers with at least 60 innings pitched. However, one of his two blown save losses this season came at the hands of the Yankees. He only faced them once this season and it was ugly. He only pitched 0.2 innings and gave up 3 runs on 3 hits and 2 walks, giving him a 40.50 ERA for the outing. It was one of his worst performances of the season.

But, here is where the Yankees have the real edge: Mariano Rivera. He is the best closer in history; he’s the best post-season pitcher in history. In 61 games, he has pitched 117.1 innings. He has given up 10 runs on 72 hits with 93 Ks and 16 BBs. And, here’s the clincher, he has a 0.77 ERA. Holy Crap!!! Rivera has 44 saves this year (3rd in AL), the most since his 53 saves in ’04. His 1.76 ERA was tops in the AL for relievers with at least 60 innings pitched.

The truth is, there is a lot going against the Twins in this series and they’ll be lucky to walk away with even one win. This season, they will be very happy to have won the Central Division.