Yanks Can't Afford To Lose Game One

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On paper, it looks like a mismatch, but Yankees fans who have watched their team sink while the Orioles soared over the last third of the season know that this isn't so.

In overall batting, the Yanks lead by 18 points, .265 (5th best in the American League) to the Orioles .247 (No. 10), and in runs scored they have a healthy bulge - 804 (good for No. 2) to 712 (No. 9). In overall pitching, again a slight edge for New York - a 3.85 ERA (5th) to Baltimore's 3.90 (6th).. The starting pitchers have an even bigger advantage - 4.05 to 4.42 (6th and 9th respectively). You have to go all the way to the bullpen to find a plus on the Birds' side of the ledger: their 3.00 ERA for relievers is the league's 3rd best, while the Yanks are mediocre at 3.43 for 7th place.


If these numbers, however, told the full story, then it shouldn't have taken the Yankees until the last day of the season to nail down the division. A case in point is tonight's match-up in Game One. C. C. Sabathia is the Yanks' ace, though I've always been skeptical of according him that title. Nonetheless, he's 15-6 while Jason Hammel, the Orioles starter, is just 8-6. No contest, right? Not exactly. Hammel has missed much of the season due to injury, but in 20 games his ERA is 3.43, just a fraction higher than Sabathia's at 3.38.

How crucial is tonight's game? Well, in a best of five series, you can't afford to lose Game One when you're playing at home and you have your best starter on the mound.

But Game Two should give the Yankees a boost. Andy Pettitte -- the 2nd best postseason starter in Yankee history, behind only Whitey Ford - is 5-4. (You''ll remember he missed a chunk of the season with a fractured foot.) But he has the lowest ERA , 2.87, of any starter on either team, while the Orioles' Wei-Yin Chen has scarcely been much better than average at 12-10 and 4.02.

There are reasons, though small ones, to think that the postseason Yankees might be better than the team we watched from the end of August through September. For one thing, they have more speed. Brett Gardner, who missed nearly the entire season, is a superb pinch runner and defensive replacement. Ditto for Eduardo Nunez in the infield, though even if you don't think Nunez is a good enough fielder at shortstop, you still want to get him into the lineup because of his remarkable 11 stolen bases (against 2 thrown out) in just 38 games. In Ichiro Suzuki, who batted .322 as a Yankee and stole 14 bases in 19 tries, the Yanks have more speed in the outfield than any Yankees team in recent memory.

And while we're talking about speed, did anyone notice that despite having such a disappointing season, Alex Rodriguez stole 13 bases in 14 attempts? The truth is that the Yankees, although they're a much older team, are considerably more nimble than the plodding Orioles, with 93 stolen bases to Baltimore's 58.

The Yankees really need to win these first two games in New York because Game Three matches Miguel Gonzalez (9-4, 3.25) against Huroki Kuroda, who was very good over the course of the season (16-11, 3.32) but, at age 37, looked to be tiring visibly over the last weeks of the season with 7 sub-par starts out of eight. And in Game Four, the Orioles will pitch Undecided against Phil Hughes, and I'll take Undecided over Hughes in and every time.

One more thing. With all this extra speed, Joe Girardi needs to turn his runners loose and put on some plays instead of just sitting back and waiting for the Yanks to hit home runs -- and in the second half of the season, mostly solo home runs - because the Orioles' bullpen is deeper and better. (Though Rafael Soriano , 2.26 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 67.2 innings, is a little better than Baltimore's closer, Jim Johnson, 2.49 and 41 SOs in 68.2.)

I think the Yanks will win the first two games, and though things may get tense when the series moves to Camden Yards, they will finish it in good fashion back in the Bronx.



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