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ALDS Game 4 preview: Orioles at Yankees

Jim Johnson Jim Johnson;s unexpected struggles have been devastating to the Orioles. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)

Orioles at Yankees

Series: ALDS, Game 4, Yankees lead 2-1

Time: 7:30 p.m. EST

TV: TBS

Starters: Joe Saunders (1-0, 1.59 ERA) vs. Phil Hughes (16-13, 4.23 ERA)

In Moneyball, Billy Beane famously declared that his, uhm, stuff didn’t work in the playoffs. Well, after Game 4 it seems the Orioles' stuff doesn’t work against the Yankees. Baltimore is now 16-3 in extra-inning games this year, but 0-3 against the Yankees, and 30-10 in one-run games, but 3-4 against the Yankees. The last two games of this series were also the seventh time since the start of September that the Orioles pulled into a tie with the Yankees but were unable to pass them.

After Game 3, the Orioles now have to worry about whether or not another key to their success this year, closer Jim Johnson, works against the Yankees. Johnson has appeared in all three games of this series thus far, and while he pitched a perfect ninth inning for the save in Game 2, he was torched for five runs and the loss in Game 1 and blew the save in Game 3. He also gave up a run in his last regular season appearance against the Yankees back on Sept. 8. I don’t expect Buck Showalter to abandon Johnson based on that small sample. After all, that Sept. 8 run was the only one he allowed in seven regular season innings against the Yankees and the only one he allowed in his final 26 regular season appearances, and Johnson did remain in Game 3 to pitch a perfect 10th inning after Raul Ibañez’s game-tying home run in the ninth. In fact, Ibañez was the only one of the seven batters Johnson faced Wednesday night to reach base. Still, there has to be a seed of doubt in the minds of both Johnson and his manager that wasn’t there before Game 3.

Don’t look for Game 3 hero Ibañez to start Game 4 against the lefty Saunders, despite Ibañez’s strong career numbers against Saunders. Joe Girardi will be perfectly happy to keep him on the bench for another key pinch-hitting appearance if necessary. Including Game 3, Ibañez is 9-for-26 (.346) as a pinch-hitter this year with three walks, two doubles and three home runs, and in games he hasn’t started has hit .368/.432/.868 in 44 plate appearances. Don’t be shocked if Alex Rodriguez is back in the three-hole, either. Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki are all lesser hitters against lefties, and Derek Jeter is locked into the leadoff spot. That leaves only Mark Teixeira and Russell Martin as alternatives, and Teixeira is just 5-for-24 (.208) with just one extra-base hit in his career against Saunders.

For his part, Saunders has been solid for the Orioles since the calendar flipped to September, posting a 2.60 ERA in his last seven starts, including the wild-card game against the Rangers, with the Orioles going 5-2 in those games. Included in that stretch was his only start against the Yankees this year in which he allowed two runs in 5 1/3 innings.

The Yankees counter with 26-year-old Phil Hughes, whose 2012 campaign looked a lot like his All-Star season of 2012 in the aggregate. Hughes was a solid contributor for the Yankees mid-season, going 10-4 with a 3.24 ERA over 16 starts from early May to the beginning of August, but went just 5-5 with a 4.78 ERA in 11 starts thereafter. Included in the later run was a Sept. 2 start at home against the Orioles in which he gave up five runs in five innings, easily the worst of his three starts against Baltimore this season. Hughes’s big bugaboo this season has been the home run; he has allowed 35 of them at a rate of 1.6 per nine innings.

One last thing to keep an eye on in this game is Derek Jeter’s left foot. Jeter has a bone bruise on the top of that foot after fouling a ball off of it in Game 3. He was clearly hobbled Wednesday night and came out after eight innings. Jeter is notorious for playing through injuries, often to the detriment of himself and his team. It’s almost a lock that he’ll be in the Game 4 lineup, but the injury could wind up compromising his already limited defensive range or could prevent him from taking an extra base, either of which could be significant in a series which, save for that Johnson’s bad ninth inning in Game 1, has been both low-scoring and very close.

 -- By Cliff Corcoran

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