ALDS Game Three: Yankees @ Tigers

Three days after the series started as a best-of-five, we’re down to a best-of-three. Thanks to the weather shenanigans on Friday, both the Yankees and Tigers get to start their ace tonight, the first game of the rest of their season. CC Sabathia was looking pretty damn sharp in the Game 1A, striking out four in just two innings. Delmon Young’s solo homer wouldn’t have left the park they’re playing in tonight. Ivan Nova finished off the win in Game 1B.

Depending on who you ask, tonight’s game is a must win because A.J. Burnett is looming for Game Four tomorrow. If you ask me, it’s not a must win, just a boy it sure would be nice to win game. Ace vs. ace, this is why these guys make the big bucks. Here are the lineups…

New York Yankees
Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Robinson Cano, 2B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, LF

CC Sabathia, SP

Detroit Tigers
Austin Jackson, CF
Ramon Santiago, 2B
Delmon Young, LF
Miguel Cabrera, 1B
Victor Martinez, DH
Magglio Ordonez, RF
Jhonny Peralta, SS
Alex Avila, C
Brandon Inge, 3B

Justin Verlander, SP

The weather in MoTown is chilly but the sky is clear. No threat of rain tonight. The game starts at 8:37pm ET and can be seen on TBS. Remember, we’re trying to win a ring around here.

Granderson up for 2011 Hank Aaron Award

Curtis Granderson was the Yankees best player this year, hitting .262/.364/.552 with 41 homers and 25 steals. He also led the AL with 119 RBI and all of baseball by scoring 136 runs, if you put weight on those such things. As a reward for his effort, Granderson is the Yankees nominee for the Hank Aaron Award, giving annually to the top offensive player in the league. The winner will be determined through a combination of fan voting and a panel of Hall of Famers. Click here to submit your vote. You can vote up to ten times a day until next week, if you choose.

Yanks shut out of BA’s top 20 FSL prospects

Baseball America’s look at the top 20 prospects in each minor league continued today with the High-A Florida State League, but no Yankees farmhands made the list. The Tampa Yanks were pretty barren this year, but I thought Brett Marshall had a decent chance of making it. I thought wrong, apparently.

In the subscriber-only chat, Jim Shonerd said that the Yankees didn’t have anyone really close to the list. Abe Almonte “did get some mention as a guy who can run and throw and has some strength.” So much for that. The next top 20 list relevant to the Yankees is the Double-A Eastern League, which comes out tomorrow. Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos are shoo-ins, and both Austin Romine and Corban Joseph have non-zero chances of cracking the list as well. Also, just a reminder, the Arizona Fall League season starts tomorrow. The Yankees are sending seven players to the desert this year, including Joseph.

The A.J. Factor

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I take the term “must win” quite literally, as in win or go home. It’s the engineer in me. If a loss won’t send you home for the season, then it’s not a must win because you have a chance to comeback in the future. Simple, right? Some games are obviously more important than others, like tonight’s game, which is more important that yesterday’s. The Yankees have three chances to win two games, and you want to win with CC Sabathia on the mound tonight to make life easier tomorrow, when A.J. Burnett starts.

We all know what Burnett has done for the last two years. He’s been awful and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. We’re talking 377 innings with a 5.20 ERA (80th out of 83 qualified starters) and a 4.80 FIP (also 80th). It’s bad, unfathomably bad. Because Burnett’s been so bad the last two years, it’s pretty natural to feel like tonight’s game is a must win because tomorrow’s game is an auto-loss. It’s not thought, we know that. Burnett might be terrible, but there’s no such thing as an automatic loss in this game. That’s part of the reason why I refuse to see tonight as a must win, and the other part is Rick Porcello.

Younger and definitely in possession of higher long-term potential than Burnett, Porcello has been pretty awful over the last two years as well. In seven fewer starts than A.J. since the beginning of last season, the New Jersey native has a 4.83 ERA (79th out of those same 83 qualifiers) and a 4.18 FIP (66th). If you’re a believer in xFIP, the two are basically equal (4.17 vs. 4.13). Sure Porcello finished the season strong (3.50 ERA in seven starts), but he faced six different teams in those seven starts, and all six were non-contenders (a combined 100 games under .500). Factor in ballparks, divisions, yadda yadda yadda, and the two have performed just as awfully over the last two years. Tigers fans are dreading Porcello’s start the same way we’re dreading Burnett’s.

Now, all that said, obviously it’s tough to trust Burnett to throw even a respectable start tomorrow, which increases the importance of tonight’s game. You don’t want the team’s season to be in his hands, really I don’t want it in anyone’s hands but Sabathia’s. Sabathia to Mariano Rivera, that’s how my ideal win or go home game plays out. Game Four is not an auto-loss though, just like his last start wasn’t a loss even though everyone expected one against those oh so might Red Sox. Game Three tonight is very important, but Burnett looming in Game Four is just one reason why.

The Most Important Game

The playoffs are such a different dynamic than the regular season. The regular season is this long marathon where you’ve got to think about the long-term, keeping people fresh for August and September and knowing when to take your foot off today’s gas for tomorrow’s commute. The playoffs are not like that though, everything has to focus on right here, right now because you don’t know what will happen next game, next inning, next batter.

“Tomorrow is big,” said Alex Rodriguez after Game Two. “Going back to when I first got here, we always thought that Game Three was the biggest. It’s almost like hitting; the 0-0 pitch is the most important, then the 1-1 pitch becomes the most important. Same goes for a series.”

When Joe Torre was managing, I remember hearing him say that he felt Game Two was the most important game of the series, which is why he always tried to line Andy Pettitte up for that start. The idea was that if you were down in the series, you could even it up. If you were up, you had a chance to really put your foot on the other team’s throat. Either way, A-Rod‘s theory and Torre’s theory are both wrong. The most important game is today’s game, regardless of what number game it is in the best-of-X series.

No one has any idea what will happen tomorrow or the next day. You might think you know based on the pitching matchups and whatnot, but you don’t. I promise you, you don’t. And I don’t either. No one does. That’s why planning and managing for tomorrow in a short series rather than focus on what’s happening at the moment can be a season killer. Saving your top bench bat for a ninth-inning pinch-hitting appearance rather than using him in the seventh, limiting your top reliever to three outs instead of five or six today so you have him again tomorrow … all prime examples of what not to do in the postseason. It’s all about right now, which is why October is so different than April through September.

Joe Girardi went with Luis Ayala in the ninth inning yesterday for that reason, because he was basically saving his top relievers for today (and tomorrow). I didn’t like it, but what’s done is done, and the Yankees are now in a real nice position going into Game Three. Rafael Soriano and David Robertson are very well rested, to the point where asking each guy to get six outs tonight would not be insane. Mariano Rivera, despite Saturday’s three-pitch appearance, is well rested as well, and I don’t see why he couldn’t get four or five outs if needed. Of course that luxury is born out of a poor process, which is bringing in Ayala yesterday. Girardi can’t control results, he can’t make guys execute pitches or hit line drives to the gaps, all he can do is put his players and his team in a position to succeed. He didn’t do that with Ayala yesterday, but the trickle down effect is that it (theoretically) helps the team today, in the most important game.