The Yankees wrapped up their ALDS matchup with the Twins more than two full days ago now, but they’re still waiting on an opponent. The Rangers grabbed the first two games of their series against the Rays in Florida, but Tampa Bay rebounded to win the pair in Texas. Thus, we get to enjoy a Game Five tonight. The Yanks benefit from this long series in a big way; they won’t have to face Cliff Lee/David Price until Game Two of the ALCS at the absolute earliest. More likely, the Bombers’ ALCS opponent with throw its ace in Game Three.
As we await tonight’s do-or-die affair, the big question on everyone’s mind concerns the Yanks’ opponent. Who is the better matchup for New York? Ben and I are going to sort that out. I’ve got the Rangers; he’s got the Rays. We’ll wrap with a poll.
The Case For Texas
The 2010 season marks the Rangers’ first trip to the postseason since 1999 when the eventual World Champion Yankees swept them in the ALDS. The Yanks also swept them in the 1998 ALDS and beat them 3-1 in the best-of-five series in 1996. Not only have the Rangers never won a playoff series, they’ve also never a playoff game in their home ballpark. By my rough count, just three of their regulars (Vlad Guerrero, Bengie Molina, Jeff Francoeur) and two of their pitchers (Cliff Lee, Darren Oliver) have played in the postseason before this month. The massive edge in experience is nice, but it’s certainly not everything.
As it tends to do, it all comes down the the pitching. Lee is an absolute stud, capable of beating any team at any time, so there’s nothing we can do about that. The Yanks smacked C.J. Wilson around all three times they faced him this year (14.1 IP, 18 H, 11 R, 9 BB, 15 K) and he’s exactly the kind of pitcher they’re capable of punishing because he will start a rally by himself with walks (led the league with 93 free passes this year). Same deal with Tommy Hunter, who held the Yanks to two runs in five innings in his only start against them this year. He’s cut from the Yankee-friendly “pitch-to-contact and don’t strike guys out” cloth. Colby Lewis had a fine season (3.55 FIP) and didn’t face the Yanks at all this season, but it’s not like he’s another Cliff Lee. The Rays were able to do some damage against him and the Yankees can too.
On the other side of the coin, Texas hasn’t faced CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte since April, and they didn’t see Phil Hughes at all this season (save for a one inning relief appearance). When they beat the Yanks four times in their last five meetings, the opposing starters were A.J. Burnett twice, Javy Vazquez twice, and Dustin Moseley. Burnett will start a game in the ALCS, but just one of the potential seven. That unfamiliarity works to the Yanks’ advantage.
Offensively, Josh Hamilton is still battling rib trouble and hasn’t hit a lick in the playoffs (.143/.250/.143). Nelson Cruz and Vlad Guerrero are big time power threats, but also prone to getting themselves out on pitches out of the zone. They rely on the money-making half of the power and patience combo. Guys like Molina (.297 OBP) and Francoeur (.300) are essentially automatic outs while Elvis Andrus hits for zero power (.036 ISO (!!!)). They also don’t employ the running game nearly as much as Tampa, a big-time help to the Yankees and Jorge Posada.
Texas does have a good bullpen featuring power arm after power arm, but they lack experience beyond Oliver. Rookie closer Neftali Feliz has already blown one save this postseason and put five of nine men he’s faced on base (three walks). The Darrens – O’Day and Oliver – are a ROOGY and LOOGY, respectively, and both Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland are just as like to melt down as they are to shut down. Beyond Lee, the pitching staff is solid but hardly overwhelming. I’ll take that every day of the week.
The Case For Tampa
The Yankees and the Rays know each other well. They played each other 18 teams this year, and while the Rays won the season series, the games were close. The Yanks lost 10 and won eight against Tampa Bay, and now they’re nine innings and a Tampa Bay win from facing off against their division rival on the road to the World Series.
After watching Tampa Bay for 18 contests this year, it’s tough to say I’d rather see the Yanks face the Rays. The kids from Tampa Bay feature a solid front-line pitcher, some shut-down relievers and a few fearsome hitters. With a triple-slash line of .316/.395/.492 in their nine games at Yankee Stadium, the Rays seem built for a late-season match-up with the Yankees. Still, the team is far from perfect.
Despite the nine-game sample from their contests in the Bronx, the Tampa Bay Rays are not a well-rounded offensive club. Overall, they hit just .247/.333/.403 on the season, ranking 13th, sixth and eighth, respectively, in the American League. Their team wOBA of .328 was just the eighth best mark in the Junior Circuit. They can be stopped from scoring runs. The Rays offense as a whole doesn’t show significant differences in their splits against either lefties or righties.
Beyond their lineup, the Rays’ pitching has had its fair share of troubles against the Yanks. Matt Garza, who figures to start Game 2, allowed 15 earned runs in 16.2 innings against the Yanks. He gave up five dingers to the Yanks’ bats. David Price struck out 21 Yanks in 26.2 innings but still allowed 38 base runners with an ERA of 4.39. The Yanks hit 24 home runs against Tampa’s pitching this year, and James Shields hasn’t been nearly as effective recently as he was earlier this year. As Jay Jaffe notes at the Pinstriped Bible today, the Rays’ pitching woes should tilt our preferences toward Tampa Bay.
Finally, the Yanks match up well against the Rays’ bullpen as well. Rafael Soriano may be a shut-down closer, and Joaquin Benoit pitched quite well against the Yanks. Yet, the team has just one lefty reliever, and it’s one the Yanks have beaten repeatedly. In eight appearances against the Yanks this year, Randy Choate faced 20 batters, and he retired just six of them. He allowed 2 walks and 12 hits while the Yanks tagged him for 10 earned runs. When the Yanks’ lefties come up in key spots, they’ll either be facing a pitcher they’ve tattooed or a right-hander. That a match-up sounds good to me.
* * *
So there you have it. The Yanks probably would have an easier go of it against the Rangers but not by much. Both clubs will play them tough, and the Yanks will have to earn their trip to the World Series. Let’s wrap this baby up with a poll.