These two teams met twice during the regular season. The Yankees took two of three at home in the season's opening series, including an Opening Day matchup of Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia on March 31 that will be echoed in Game 1 of this series. The Tigers then returned serve by taking three of four in Detroit in early May. Of course, that was a long time ago, particularly in the life of the Tigers, whose surge benefitted from the trading deadline additions of starting pitcher Doug Fister and infielder Wilson Betemit, and to a lesser degree from the August acquisition of outfielder Delmon Young, and the intervening time hasn't been particularly kind to the Yankees' starting rotation or their third baseman. Here, then, are the five keys to this series.
1. Three Days' Rest
No need to speculate about when these team's aces will pitch. Managers Jim Leyland of Detroit and Joe Girardi of New York have already announced it. CC Sabathia will pitch on three days' rest in Game 4. Justin Verlander won't. That's consistent with their histories. Verlander has never pitched on three days' rest in the major leagues. Sabathia is 3-1 with a 1.01 ERA in four regular-season starts on three days' rest, three of which came in his final three starts of the 2008 season and helped lift the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. He also posted a 2.45 ERA in two quality starts on three days' rest in the 2009 postseason, both of which were won by the Yankees on the way to their 27th world championship.
As a result, those two aces, arguably the first and fourth best pitchers in the American League this year, will only face off once in this series and will be opposed by lesser pitchers should their second starts be necessary. That also means that Doug Fister, who went a Doyle Alexander-like 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and 11.40 K/BB in 11 games after being acquired from the Mariners at the trading deadline, will only start once, even if this series goes the distance.
2. Ivan Nova
Verlander and Fister will still start three times in this best-of-five series, which is good news for the Tigers, who were 18-3 in games started by those two since the latter's acquisition. In two of those starts, including a potential double-elimination Game 5 against Verlander, the Yankees will counter with Ivan Nova, a rookie who was farmed out to Triple-A in July. That's a heady assignment for a rookie, not that he hasn't earned it. Nova went 8-0 with a 3.18 ERA in 11 starts after returning to the Yankees rotation, and really shouldn't have been demoted in the first place (though one could argue that he returned with greater purpose and effectiveness). However, even over those last 11 starts, Nova's peripherals have been underwhelming (5.7 K/9, 2.35 K/BB). If the Tigers' formula for winning this series is taking the three games started by their top two starters, the Yankees' formula for winning the series just might require winning one of Nova's two starts against the Tigers' big two, and if the Tigers take Game 1 behind Verlander, there's no other way for the Yankees to win the series.
3. The First Six Innings
Don't expect a lot of late-inning fireworks in this series. The Tigers and Yankees have two of the best bullpen Big Threes in baseball. The Tigers' Joaquin Benoit and Yankees' Rafael Soriano formed a dominating end game for the Rays last year. Both experienced expected corrections this year, but remain elite set-up men with Benoit securing the eighth inning for the Tigers, and Soriano staking out the seventh inning for the Yankees since returning from the disabled list at the end of July. The Yankees' David Robertson and Tigers rookie Al Alburquerque both struck out more than 13 men per nine innings this season while posting ERAs below 2.00. Over his last 15 appearances, Alburquerque allowed no runs on just six hits, all singles, while striking out 20 men in 14 1/3 innings. Robertson, meanwhile, finished the regular season with a 1.08 ERA good for a 410 ERA+, the eight-best mark among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in major league history.
Then there are the closers. Detroit's Jose Valverde led the majors with 49 saves in part because he didn't blow a single save opportunity all season (though he did take four losses), and the guy I haven't mentioned yet is New York's Mariano Rivera, the majors' all-time saves king. Benoit, Soriano, Robertson, Alburquerque, and Rivera combined to hold their ALDS opponents scoreless this season, albeit in limited exposure. Valverde, however, allowed three runs (two earned) in 4 2/3 innings against the Yankees this season, two of those runs coming in his first loss of the season back on May 2. Nonetheless, it will behoove both of these teams to get a lead in the first six innings.
4. Lineup Depth
As I wrote two weeks ago, there's more to the Tigers than Justin Verlander. There's also more to the Tigers' lineup than Miguel Cabrera, though I can sympathize with those who are blinded by his major league leading batting average (.344) and on-base percentage (.448) and red-hot finish (Cabrera hit .447/.537/.772 over his final 32 games dating back to August 26). Alex Avila, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta each had excellent seasons at the plate for the Tigers. However there's a sharp drop-off after that from the Tigers' fourth-best hitter to their fifth-best, who, thanks to a season-ending thumb injury suffered by sophomore Brennan Boesch, just might be Betemit. He missed 10 games with a bad knee prior to Tuesday, but went 3-for-6 with a double, triple and a homer in the season's final two games and hit .292/.346/.525 overall after being acquired from the Royals prior to the trading deadline.
What's most curious about the Tigers lineup, however, is the fact that their best hitters are buried behind some of their worst. Cabrera, Martinez, Avila and Peralta bat in that order, but from the fourth-through-seventh spots in the lineup, and Betemit typically hits ninth. Meanwhile, the top three spots in the Tiger order belong to Austin Jackson (.249/.317/.374), the 37-year-old Magglio Ordoñez (.255/.303/.331) and Delmon Young (.274/.298/.458 since joining the Tigers in mid-August, .268/.302/.393 overall). The Yankee lineup has a few soft spots of its own, but those three batters, left-handed DH Jorge Posada (.235/.315/.398), who is expected to start every game of this series, catcher Russell Martin (.237/.324/.408), and slap-hitting speedster Brett Gardner (.259/.345/.369) hit in that order in the bottom three spots in the Yankee lineup and as a group have been more productive than the Tigers' top three men.
Meanwhile, the Yankees' top three includes two MVP candidates (No.2 hitter Curtis Granderson and newly-minted No. 3 hitter Robinson Cano) and the rejuvenated Derek Jeter (.331/.384/.447 in 314 plate appearances since returning from the disabled list in early July). What that means is that the Yankees' best hitters will come to bat more often than the Tigers', and when the lineups turn over in the late innings, the Yankees have a considerable advantage.
5. Alex Rodriguez's health
A-Rod averaged 159 games played per season from 2001 to 2007, but hasn't been able to avoid the disabled list since and played in just 99 games this season, his lowest total since he was a 19-year-old rookie with the Mariners in 1995. Rodriguez actually played in 80 of the Yankees' first 86 games this season, but after going homerless in the last 22 of those games went under the knife to have a torn meniscus in his right knee repaired. After missing more than six weeks, Rodriguez sprained his left thumb making a diving play in the field in his first game back and missed four more games, playing in just four of the Yankees first 12 games with him back on the active roster. He missed another seven straight games in mid-September due to an aggravation of the thumb, then was a late-scratch in the season finale on Wednesday due to pain in his surgically repaired knee.
Altogether, Rodriguez played in just 19 of the Yankees final 37 games despite being on the active roster that entire time and hit just .191/.345/.353 over that span. The Yankees have declared Rodriguez ready to go for Game 1, but there's no telling how his 35-year-old body will respond, or what he'll tweak next. If Rodriguez can't play the field, Eric Chavez (.263/.320/.356 this season with just two home runs in 175 plate appearances) will be his likely replacement in the field, replacing Posada in the lineup against the all-righty Tigers starting pitching. If Rodriguez can't play at all, that means both Posada and Chavez in the Yankee lineup, which would appear to make it shorter. Then again, that might actually be a better arrangement than having a hobbled A-Rod hitting cleanup.
THE PICK: Yankees in four