Series: ALDS, Game 1
Time: 6:00 p.m. EST
These AL East rivals spent the last 32 days of the season separated by two games or fewer in the division race, with the Yankees clinching the upper hand only on the final day. This is New York's fourth straight postseason appearance under manager Joe Girardi, while for Baltimore, this is its first trip since 1997; the latter pulled off an upset of the two-time defending AL champion Rangers in Friday's AL wild-card match. The two teams played each other evenly this year, splitting 18 regular season meetings, each taking six out of nine on the other's home fields; the Orioles outscored the Yankees, 92-90.
The Yankees surely welcomed the extra rest, particularly given the banged-up condition of their aging roster. Mark Teixeira is still recovering from a left calf strain that limited him to four games after August 27, and Derek Jeter battling a sore left ankle that necessitated a fair bit of DH duty in September.
Sabathia may benefit from extra rest as well. Having served two stints on the disabled list this season (for a groin strain and elbow inflammation), the big man needed eight-inning efforts in his three final starts to reach the 200-inning plateau for the sixth straight year. There's been plenty of focus on his reduced fastball velocity, which dropped 1.6 mph to an average of 93.1 mph this year, but the flipside may be that a lesser workload than his recent 230-inning seasons may have left him more in the tank; since 2007, he has posted a 4.95 ERA in 80 postseason innings, with walk and homer rates (4.6 and 1.4 per nine) doubling his regular season rates.
Despite his injuries, Sabathia posted his best strikeout and walk rates as a Yankee (8.9 and 2.0 per nine) in 2012, and cracked the league's top 10 with a 3.38 ERA. Rounding out his arsenal with a sinker, slider and a changeup used exclusively against righties, he showed virtually no platoon split (.241/.291/.374 versus righties, .227/.265/.402 versus lefties), something of an anomaly for his career. He was roughed up for a 6.38 ERA in three starts against the Orioles, all of at least six innings but none of them quality starts.
Sabathia faces an Orioles offense that ranked eighth in scoring at 4.40 runs per game, but boosted that to 4.75 per game over the final two months with a remade lineup, and finished second in the league in homers (214) and percentage of runs via homer (47 percent), both behind the Yankees. While the team showed a minimal platoon split (.245/.308/.420 versus righties, .252/.320/.409 versus lefties), a good bit of those numbers is owed to players no longer relevant to Buck Showalter's plans. Sabathia's presence will likely knock lefty DH Jim Thome and second baseman Ryan Flaherty out of the lineup in favor of Lew Ford and Robert Andino, while significantly reducing the potency of fellow lefties Chris Davis and Nate McLouth. On the other hand, switch-hitting Matt Wieters is a beast against southpaws (.323/.404/.504 in 151 PA this year) compared to righties (.224/.303/.412 in 442 PA).
Acquired from the Rockies in February, Hammel added a sinker and a bit of velocity (average fastball speed 94.4 mph), and boosted both his groundball and strikeout rates considerably — from 46 to 54 percent for the former, from 5.0 to 8.6 per nine for the latter — to emerge as Baltimore's most effective starter in the first half. A torn meniscus in his right knee required surgery in mid-July; he started just twice after that before being sidelined by further knee discomfort. Since his Sept. 11 outing, he's been rehabbing, and threw 45-50 pitches in a bullpen session on Friday to confirm his fitness for this assignment. He faced the Yankees three times this season, including his Sept. 6 return, yielding a 3.94 ERA in 16 innings. As with that outing, he'll likely five-and-fly so Showalter can play matchups over the last four innings with his deep bullpen: righties Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala and Darren O'Day, and lefties Troy Patton and Brian Matusz in front of closer Jim Johnson. With his remade repertoire, Hammel showed a substantial reverse platoon split (.266/.328/.364 against righties, .203/.278/.307 against lefties), but even so, the Yankees fared better against righties (.266/.336/.461) than lefties (.263/.339/.4438) given the tilt of their lineup and the unsettling declines of Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson against southpaws. Cano may be the Yankee most hurt by the layoff, as he was a one-man wrecking crew down the stretch, going 24-for-39 with seven doubles and three homers in his final nine games, all of which featured at least two hits. He's the centerpiece of the offense now given the injuries, declines and regressions of Teixeira,Alex Rodriguez and Granderson, though from top to bottom just about any Yankee hitter can do damage, particularly with the late-season charges from Russell Martin and Ichiro Suzuki giving pitchers fewer places to hide. For all of this offense's woes, they scored 4.96 runs per game, second in the league.