Five questions about Yankees-Rangers
ALCS: YANKEES VS. RANGERS
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They say everything is bigger in Texas, and in baseball terms, everything is bigger in New York. Now this is really big. The Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees will play for the American League pennant. The Yankees have won 41 of them; the Rangers, who just won a postseason series for the first time in their 39-year existence, are playing for the pennant for the first time. It starts Friday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington with CC against C.J.
Here are five questions:
1. How good is Cliff Lee, and how much will it hurt the Rangers that he likely won't start until Game 3?
His career postseason numbers, all in the last two years, are just absurd: seven starts, 6-0 record, 1.44 ERA, .185 batting average against and nine strikeouts for every walk. In five of those starts, he has pitched at least seven innings without a walk. Only Greg Maddux, with seven, has more such starts in postseason history. Lee has four starts in which he struck out 10 and walked none -- four other pitchers in postseason history have one such start, but no one has more than one except for Lee. Tuesday night, Lee became the first pitcher to strike out 11 in a winner-take-all postseason game. In the AL Division Series against Tampa Bay, he set a postseason series record with 21 strikeouts without a walk. Lee is 6-4 with a 4.42 ERA lifetime against the Yankees, but he dominated them in Game 1 of the World Series last year and threw a gem at them Sept. 12 in Texas. His ability to pound the strike zone, especially on the inside part of the plate, is impressive. "It is so difficult for a hitter to pick up the ball because it's so hard to follow his arm angle,'' one scout said. "The ball seems to come right out of his shirt, a little like Billy Wagner. Lee throws hard enough, but he freezes right-handed hitters on the inside part better than any left-hander I've seen.'' That's the good news for the Rangers. The bad news is, Lee likely won't be available to start until Game 3 unless the Rangers decide to pitch him on short rest, which he has never done. But if it goes to a Game 7, Lee could start twice in the series. Without him in Game 1, the Rangers will start C.J. Wilson, who won 15 games this season (the Rangers were 24-9 in his starts, the second-best winning percentage by any team for any pitcher in baseball this year), left-handers batted .144 and slugged .176 (no home runs) off him, and he was terrific in his start in Game 2 against the Rays. The Rangers are expected to start Colby Lewis in Game 2. Then they would have Lee for Game 3 in New York.
2. What are the starting pitching plans for the Yankees?
Ace CC Sabathia says he can pitch on short rest in this series, but at least for the first time around the rotation, the Yankees will give A.J. Burnett a start in Game 4 after Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes. Pettitte threw marvelously in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Twins on a night when the Yankees weren't sure what they were going to get from him. He gave them seven strong innings to record his 19th postseason victory, the most all time, and pass Tom Glavine for the most quality starts in postseason history with No. 25. Hughes was very good (seven shutout innings) in Game 3, showing no signs of fatigue from a season in which he has thrown 90 more innings than last year. Sabathia can pitch effectively on short rest and has proved that several times, but Burnett needs to give New York something. He is the only Yankee since earned runs became an official stat in the AL in 1913 to lose 15 games and have an ERA over 5.00. He would join Tampa Bay's James Shields this year as the only pitchers to make a postseason start with that many losses and an ERA that high in a season.
3. Can the Rangers' sweep from Sept. 10-12 help them in October?
Yes, it can. The Rangers didn't just sweep the Yankees; they swept them in every important way. On Sept. 10, Nelson Cruz hit a home run off Joba Chamberlain to tie the game in the eighth inning, then hit a walk-off homer off Chad Gaudin in the 13th. The next night, Texas scored twice in the ninth off Mariano Rivera to win 7-6. Rivera hit Jeff Francoeur with a pitch to force in the winning run, the first time the Yankees have lost a game on a hit batter with the bases loaded since Jim Kaat hit Steve Kemp, forcing in Mark Wagner, in 1979. The next day, Lee allowed two hits in eight innings in a 4-1 victory. Closer Neftali Feliz got the save by striking out the side on 16 pitches. In that series, he faced seven Yankees hitters and struck out five of them. But Feliz, 22, seemed a little shaky during the LDS against the Rays. What will he be like trying to close a game at Yankee Stadium? Still, they were three wins, all huge, all dramatic, before crowds of 46,179, 49.210 and 42,007 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. It wasn't the postseason, and everything changes in October, but those three games in September have to give Rangers faith that they can beat the Yankees.
4. How important is Curtis Granderson to the Yankees?
He has been a different hitter in the last two months, especially against left-handers. Hitting coach Kevin Long, one of the best, asked manager Joe Girardi to give Granderson two days off and allow the two to work on Granderson's swing. Long shortened Granderson's stroke, made him quicker to the ball, and it has showed: Granderson hit nine home runs in 90 at-bats in September. Granderson crushed a crucial double off Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano in Game 1 of the LDS, another sign that his struggles against lefties aren't what they used to be. With Granderson hitting down in the order against left-handers, and with Lance Berkman on hand from either side of the plate, the Yankees are throwing out a lineup every night that is the best and most versatile in the game. Granderson, and all the Yankees lefties, will be tested by lefties Lee and Wilson.
5. Do the Rangers remind anyone of the Angels of, say, five or so years ago?
Yes. Those Angels teams were so aggressive on the bases. They ran and ran and ran until the Yankees threw them out. They took the extra base. They made Yankees infielders throw the ball. They made the Yankees look old. Clearly, this Yankees team is old only in a few spots, and having Mark Teixeira at first base instead of Jason Giambi greatly changes the equation. Still, the Rangers are really young and really athletic. They play small ball as well as any other team and make more productive outs than anyone. When Elvis Andrus (the youngest shortstop ever to hit leadoff in a postseason game), Julio Borbon and Ian Kinsler are running the bases, "the Rangers are so intimidating for a pitcher,'' one scout said. "I've seen them totally distract pitchers because of their athleticism.'' We saw that in Game 5 against the Rays when the Rangers twice scored from second base on ground balls to the infield. The Rangers are the first team to do that in a postseason game, and no team had done it even once in a postseason game since 1970. The Rays had never allowed that to happen in any game, either in the regular season or postseason, then it happened twice in one game, an elimination game in the postseason! Plus, the Rangers scored on a combination stolen base/throwing error. Look for the Rangers to be as aggressive as possible on the bases against the Yankees.
PREDICTION: YANKEES IN SEVEN
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.