The Texas Rangers won a playoff series for the first time in franchise history earlier this week, while the New York Yankees made quick work of the Minnesota Twins in pursuing their 28th World Series title. The ALCS will feature two of the most powerful offenses in baseball, but the winner will be the one that has the best days on the mound.
Let’s get it out of the way right now: Everything has to go right for the Rangers to win this series, and something would have to go wrong for the Yankees to lose it. New York dominated every phase of the game against the Twins, and the Rangers skirted past their AL East foes by the grace of Cliff Lee.
And, as a baseball fan, it’s unfortunate that, in all likelihood, we won’t get to see a Cliff Lee/CC Sabathia redux from last year’s World Series. Instead, the Rangers will have to play catch-up with the Yanks and rely heavily on their other starters to shut down a powerhouse offense.
Make no mistake: this is the Yankees’ series to lose. They come in off a sweep with a lined-up and primed rotation, the better regular season record, and the expectations of New York behind them. If the defending champs keep their mistakes to a minimum, they should be on their way to a second straight World Series appearance.
The Rangers, on the other hand, have their rotation off-kilter and will start the volatile C.J. Wilson against CC Sabathia tonight. Wilson is a little bit like the A.J. Burnett that pitched for the Yankees in the 2009 playoffs: A guy who led the league in unintentional walks (93), but can completely shut down a lineup on any given night, as he showed in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays.
Unfortunately, the last lineup someone with control problems (or any pitcher, for that matter) wants to face is the New York Yankees. Wilson faced the Yankees three times this season, throwing only 14.1 innings, giving up 11 runs (9 earned), for a 5.74 ERA. Wilson walked three batters in every game against the Yanks this year, his longest outing going six innings. Not exactly the kind of numbers that inspire confidence.
Still, in the playoffs those numbers don’t (necessarily) mean anything. If Wilson can keep the Rangers in the game and maybe take advantage of whatever rust the Yanks may have, Texas could steal Game 1. The likelihood of that happening against Sabathia, though, is very small, even in Arlington.
Game 2 will feature Colby Lewis and Phil Hughes, neither of whom allowed a run in their first postseason starts. Expect both streaks to come to an end. This will be one of the most exciting games in the series. Either offense, or perhaps both, could explode off these guys at any moment, and it will come down to bullpens and late innings. The stuff the playoffs are made of.
If the Rangers manage to go to New York with the series tied, they’ll have Cliff Lee ready to put some pressure on the defending champs. Joe Girardi made a good move by swapping Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte in the ALCS, moving Hughes and his favorable home/road splits to Arlington, and moving the all-time postseason leader in almost every pitching category into a head-to-head with Cliff Lee at the Stadium. Instant classic. Guaranteed.
The winner of that hard-fought contest will have all sorts of momentum going into the all-important Game 4, where momentum could be the difference between a tight game and a blowout. Tommy Hunter, who struggled with the Rays, will make the start against the even-more-unpredictable-than-usual A.J. Burnett. This could get to the bullpens quick, or the momentum from an emotional Game 3 could push the starter to another level and put their team in the driver’s seat. Whichever question mark makes a statement first will set the tone.
Without Cliff Lee, the Rangers would probably be sunk in this series. With him, though, they have the opportunity to pencil in at least one win in Game 3. If they can take a game at home, they can force the set back to Texas and really give the Yankees fits back in The Ballpark.
The key for the Rangers, though, is to maintain their hot-hitting offense and keep pace with the Yankees. A healthier Josh Hamilton could be the difference for the Rangers, but if he continues to feel the effects of his rib injury, the offense won’t be able to get by with just savvy base-running and fluky plays. Nelson Cruz, Vladimir Guerrero, Michael Young, and Ian Kinsler will have to continue to pick up the slack. The Rangers will go as far as their best hitters will take them.
The Yankees, on the other hand, have everything going for them right now, including the schedule. If A.J. Burnett can keep his team in the game in Game 4, the Champs will have the opportunity to close this thing out at home. But if New York underperforms and gives the eager, youthful Rangers club an opportunity, they’ll be spending even more time at home.
Overall, though, the Yankees just match up better. Against the Twins, the Yankees put to bed the worries about both their rotation and their offense, and would need something to go wrong for them to lose (Jeter and A-Rod being shut down like they were in the ALDS again would probably qualify).
Even with Burnett in Game 4, the Yankees will have a good opportunity to win every game, using the Rangers rotation to their advantage. The key will be taking, at the very least, a game from the Rangers in Arlington with the opportunity to close out the series in Yankee Stadium. This could be very quick though, and the Yanks could take the first two and force Cliff Lee to be the stopgap.
I think they’ll do just that.
The Pick: Yankees in 5.