Friday October 15th, 2010

Cliff Corcoran previews each day's games throughout the postseason.

Series: ALCS, Game 1 Time: 8:00 p.m. EST TV: TBS Starters: CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18 ERA) vs. C.J. Wilson (15-8, 3.35 ERA)

Having finally won their first postseason series since the franchise's inception as the expansion Washington Senators in 1961, the Texas Rangers now have an opportunity to exact revenge on the team that bounced them from the Division Series each of the other three times they made it to the playoffs. The Rangers won their first-ever postseason game, Game 1 of the 1996 ALDS, then lost nine straight games to the Yankees across the '96, 1998, and 1999 Division Series, scoring just one run in each of the latter two series.

Of course, the more relevant history is that the Yankees have won four straight postseason series over the last two years. The defending world champions will look to make it five straight starting tonight, when they send their ace, Sabathia, to the mound in Arlington.

Sabathia last faced the Rangers in April in the Bronx. He was dominant in that game, needing just 73 pitches to strike out nine men against no walks while allowing just one run on three hits in a rain-shortened six-inning complete game. He last pitched in the Ballpark in Arlington as a member of the Indians in June 2008. Only three members of the lineup he pitched against that afternoon will face him tonight, though one of them, Michael Young, went 3-for-5 with a double, a homer, and a stolen base.

More recently, Sabathia has been uncharacteristically inconsistent. He allowed five or more runs in three of his final seven regular season starts, and his Game 1 outing against the Twins in the Division Series, while victorious, was underwhelming. Sabathia gave up four runs (three earned) in just six innings in that start and walked in the tying run in the bottom of the sixth after the Yankees had taken the lead with four runs in the top of the inning. That's not the kind of performance that would have measured up very well against the postseason pitching of Sabathia's good friend and former Cleveland rotation-mate Cliff Lee. Fortunately for Sabathia and the Yankees, the Rangers needed Lee for Game 5 of their series against the Rays on Tuesday. That pushed Lee back to Game 3 of this series and moved fellow lefty C.J. Wilson into tonight's Game 1 start.

Wilson threw 6 1/3 shutout innings in Game 2 against the Rays, and the Rangers won two of Wilson's three starts against the Yankees during the regular season. Still, the Yankees have had success against Wilson in this, his first full year as a major league starter after four years of pure relief work. Wilson opposed Sabathia in that rain-shortened game back in April and took the loss, giving up five runs (three earned) in a complete six innings. In August, he held the Yankees to two runs, but faced 10 batters in the fourth and fifth innings combined and was bounced with one out in the sixth. In his last start against them, a little more than a month ago, he lasted just three innings, yielding four runs on six hits and three walks.

Altogether, Wilson, who is 2-3 with a 4.89 ERA over his last seven starts, posted a 5.65 ERA, 1.88 WHIP, and 1.67 K/BB against the Yankees while averaging less than five innings per start. That last statistic had a lot to do with the fact that the Yankees, who were second in the majors in walks and fourth in pitches seen per plate appearance during the regular season, made Wilson, who led the AL in walks and was fifth in the majors in pitches per plate appearance, throw a lot of pitches.

The Yankees' offense really clicked in the ALDS, hitting .314/.351/.514 as a team against the Twins, though one wonders if having five days off between playoff series has allowed some rust to accumulate on the Yankees bats. It likely has not, given how incidental those five days are in the context of the team's 165-game season. As the Yankees' Lance Berkman said when he was coming off the disabled list at the beginning of September, "this time of year . . . if you can't by now, you can't hit." Since that conversation, Berkman has hit .310/.410/.451, including a pair of key extra-base hits Game 2 of the ALDS.

The Rangers' Josh Hamilton, however, missed far more than five games in September due to broken ribs and did look awfully rusty in the Rays series. Hamilton has hit just .172/.219/.276 in 32 plate appearances since returning from the disabled list and enters this series on an 0-for-11 skid. With the Yankees throwing lefties Sabathia and Andy Pettitte in the first two games, the left-handed Hamilton seems unlikely to break out of that funk before this series heads to New York. Instead, look for righty-swinging ALDS heroes Nelson Cruz (8-for-20, 3 HRs) and Ian Kinsler (8-for-18, 3 HRs) to continue to drive the Rangers' offense. Also look for the Rangers to run wild on Jorge Posada and the Yankees' pitchers, who combined to catch just 15 percent of attempting basestealers this season, the worst mark in the majors.

This is a big game for the Yankees. Normally road teams are happy to split the first two games of a best-of-seven set and head home with the series even, but with Lee, quickly establishing himself as one of the most dominant postseason pitchers of all time, lurking for Game 3, and a struggling A.J. Burnett scheduled for Game 4, the Yankees might need to take both of these opening games in Texas to avoid facing elimination at home. Given that they have their ace on the hill facing a lesser Rangers starter, this is as close to a must-win for the Yankees as a Game 1 can be.

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