Friday October 15th, 2010

Even last Thursday, when Yankees manager Joe Girardi's strategy of sacrificing an AL East title in order to set-up a first-round matchup with the Twins -- his club's traditional whipping boys -- instead of with Cliff Lee and the Rangers was close to paying dividends (New York then had a 2-0 series lead on Minnesota), Girardi refused to admit that this had ever been his strategy at all. In fact, he wouldn't even allow that he hadn't minded winning only the wild card if it meant that his players, many of whom are well past their salad days, received some much-needed late-season rest. "This thing has taken on legs of its own," he said, indignant. "I didn't really try to rest our guys. Just to talk about it, Alex Rodriguez played 13 days in a row. He played 15 out of the last 16 games. So yes, we were trying to get guys healthy. We had guys getting shots, we had guys that had a bad knee, bad wrist. But rest, no. We were trying to win every game we could."

For a non-strategy, Girardi's strategy has worked rather well. The Yankees required just four days to again dispatch the Twins and reach their ninth ALCS in 15 seasons. There, they'll still face the Rangers -- against whom they split the season series 4-4, but against whom they'd suffered a disheartening three-game sweep in mid-September ("Hell, yeah!" GM Brian Cashman had exclaimed, when asked as the regular season was winding down if Texas represented a dangerous potential playoff opponent) -- but, thanks to the five games it took the Rangers to beat the Rays, the Yankees won't face Lee until Game 3.

New York, meanwhile, has its rotation set and rested, starting with CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte, the latter two of whom put to rest doubts about their form and health (respectively) with stellar ALDS outings. The Rangers still represent a formidable hurdle, but less so than even two weeks ago. Here are five potential keys to the series:

Entering the season, the Rangers appeared poised to be one of the great running teams of recent years, a good bet to become the first club since the 2007 Mets to steal 200 bases. Elvis Andrus, Julio Borbon and Ian Kinsler all seemed like locks to swipe 30 bags, and Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton sure to get 20. Only Andrus reached his benchmark, due to Borbon's sophomore struggles and extended injuries to the rest, and Texas ultimately ranked just fifth in the AL in steals, with 123.

Now, though, everyone is more or less healthy, and the Rangers' six divisional series steals led all teams. Their speed was the central reason -- other than Lee -- why they were able to put away the Rays in Game 5 of the Division Series (twice Rangers runners scored from second on infield grounders, and even the cement-booted Bengie Molina had a steal, his first since '06). In Jorge Posada, the Rays face a 39-year-old catcher who threw out just 15.3 percent of potential base-stealers this season -- among backstops who played at least 81 games, only Rod Barajas, who split the year between the Mets and Dodgers, the Pirates' Ryan Doumit and Posada's backup Francisco Cervelli were worse. Perhaps the only clear advantage for the Rangers in this series is on the basepaths, and it will be incumbent on them to push it as far as they can.

You know, by now, that the Yankees' captain suffered through a brutal offensive year, and one that might mark the beginning of a precipitous decline for the 36-year-old. He set or tied career lows in batting average (.270), OPS (.710), and home runs (10), among other categories. In six games against the Rangers, though, Jeter looked to be better than even his former self, batting .385 with an OPS of 1.064, his best numbers against any AL club. He was also 4-for-9 against Lee, and somehow drew two walks against him -- the only hitter to accomplish that particular feat -- and that continued a career-long trend against the Rangers' new ace (in 36 at-bats, Jeter is hitting .417 with a 1.071 OPS against Lee).

In other words, Jeter's presence atop the lineup (instead of putting, say, Brett Gardner up there, at least against righties) in the ALCS should prove to be a real benefit to the Yankees' otherwise potent lineup, and not a hindrance.

Apparently so -- for now. The Yankees on Wednesday announced that Burnett will start Game 4, on the same day that the scuffling righty beaned two of his own teammates in a simulated game. That continued a string of mostly terrible performances by Burnett, who lost a career-high 15 games and posted a career-worst 5.26 ERA, while making $16.5 million.

Still, fears about Girardi's decision to start Burnett -- thereby saving Sabathia, Hughes and Pettitte from pitching on short rest -- are likely overblown. For one thing, Burnett pitched quite well against the Rangers, even in the midst of his annus horribilis -- he went 1-0 with a 2.50 ERA and a .232 batting average against in three starts against Texas (the latter two of which came in his otherwise difficult August and September, when his cumulative monthly ERAs were 7.80 and 6.14). For another, he is playoff-tested. Three of his postseason starts last fall were quality starts (we won't mention the other two). And for another, we probably won't end up seeing Burnett during the ALCS -- as we didn't during the ALDS -- unless the Yankees enter Game 4 with either a 3-0 or a 2-1 series lead. If Burnett ultimately not only starts a game in this series, but wins it, then a World Series appearance for the Yankees will be assured, if not definitively then for all intents and purposes.

The 22-year-old Feliz will likely, and deservedly, be named the AL Rookie of the Year, after a season in which he was almost but not quite as good as Rivera, 17 years his senior. Feliz saved more games than the Yankees' closer (40 to 33) and had a better strikeout rate (9.22 K's/9 to 6.75), but trailed him in, among other things, ERA (2.73 to 1.80) and WHIP (0.88 to 0.83). Still, the closers' regular season numbers were comparable. That was the regular season.

In the ALDS, both of Feliz's outings were shaky -- he yielded two walks in a 20-pitch inning of work in Game 1, and a tie-breaking RBI single to John Jaso and then a game-icing home run to Carl Crawford in Game 3. Rivera, meanwhile, was the same quiet menace to the structural integrity of bats that he has always been (he broke four in Game 1 against the Twins alone). He allowed just two baserunners in his 3 1/3 innings of work in the series. While Texas can't count on doing much of anything against Rivera, the patient and experienced Yankees could easily get to the young Feliz in at least one game in which the Rangers had entered the ninth with a lead, a result that would be crushing for Rangers' hopes of winning the series.

Rangers GM Jon Daniels demonstrated he was going all-in for not only his franchise's first playoff series win (now accomplished) but their first World Series title by making a string of midseason moves, adding Lee, Jorge Cantu, Cristian Guzman, Jeff Francoeur and Molina. The most significant of course, was getting Lee from the Mariners on July 9. He was not at his best for Texas in the regular season but burnished his reputation as a big-game pitcher with a pair of brilliant wins against the Rays. Lee now has four career postseason games in which he's thrown at least seven innings and stuck out 10 batters without allowing a walk. All other pitchers in baseball history have combined for three such games.

Lee, however, won't be available until Game 3, putting an enormous burden on Game 1 starter C.J. Wilson (prior to this season a sometimes-effective reliever) and Game 2 starter Colby Lewis (prior to this season a big league bust who had been banished to Japan). While Wilson was superb in allowing two hits and no runs in Game 2 of the ALDS, the Yankees are a far more patient team than the Rays, and Wilson -- whose 93 walks led the American League this season -- is the type of pitcher they chew up (indeed, as a team they hit .300 against him in three regular season starts). Lewis hasn't thrown a pitch against the Yankees since 2003, and there's little reason to think he'll fare much better than Wilson. That means that while Lee might well improve on his career postseason stats in Game 3 (he's 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA), he probably won't have a chance to make his scheduled Game 7 start. In fact, his next major league outing might well come wearing his current opponent's uniform.

THE PICK: Yankees in 6

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