Game 162: End of the line

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

This is always a sad day. I swear, the season goes by faster and faster every year. Here’s the lineup, for the first five or so innings anyway…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B – still going to bat third against lefties
Robinson Cano, DH
Alex Rodriguez, 3Bscratched because the knee is acting up
Nick Swisher, RF
Andruw Jones, LF
Jesus Montero, C
Eduardo Nunez, 2B
Brandon Laird, 3B

Dellin Betances, SP

The game starts at 7pm ET and can be seen on YES  locally  or ESPN nationally. Enjoy the last meaningless game of 2011.

Pregame Notes: Betances on the bump

The Yankees didn’t know who was starting tonight’s game until a few hours before first pitch, and that would be a reason to panic at any other point of the season. Before Game 162 though, with everything clinched and a clubhouse full of September call-ups, it was no big deal. Dellin Betances, who last started a game 23 days ago, gets the nod six days after walking four and hitting one of the seven batters he faced in his big league debut against these same Rays.

“I was mostly throwing the ball instead of pitching,” said Betances of his debut, “and that’s one of the things that hurt me. I’m just glad to get the first one out of the way, and I hope that I get the chance to pitch one more time and redeem myself from this one.”

The Yankees aren’t going to ask the 23-year-old right-hander from Washington Heights to pitch deep into the game, frankly I’d be surprised if he threw more than two innings. Hopefully the nerves are a non-issue tonight and the kid shows why the Yankees gave him a million bucks as an eighth round pick in 2006. Phil Hughes, Boone Logan, and Luis Ayala are likely to get into the game at some point, their final tune-ups before the ALDS starts on Friday. Triple-A arms will handle the  rest of the game.

  • A close approximation of the A-lineup is starting tonight, but don’t expect those guys to play all nine innings. Derek Jeter will be hitting exactly .300 if gets a hit in first at-bat (.2996 to be exact, but hooray for rounding up!), so he might not stick around to bat a second time. The other guys figure to get two or three plate appearances before giving way to the kids.
  • I took the video above about four hours before first pitch, mostly out of boredom. It’s Robinson Cano doing that screen drill with hitting coach Kevin Long, with a screen stretched across home plate. The idea is to swing the bat and not hit the screen, and it’s supposed to help him keep his hands in and pull the ball for power. You can hear the crack of the bat, then a few seconds later the thud of the ball hitting the seats.
  • Alex Rodriguez did the same drill after Cano, though Long spent a lot more time giving him instruction than he did Robbie. Two days ago we heard they were working on A-Rod‘s leg kick and timing. Alex may not be hitting all that much right now, but it’s not because of a lack of effort.
  • CC Sabathia played catch with (I think) bullpen coach Mike Harkey before batting practice, I’d say about 15 minutes worth. Nothing crazy, just the usual between start stuff.

The Great ALDS Unknown

Will we see him Friday night? (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

We’re down to the final day of the regular season, and we still don’t know the wildcard team for either league. That makes for what should be a very exciting night, but there is still something else that has yet to be determined, and that’s the Yankees ALDS opponent. The only thing we know for sure is that Game One of that series will be this Friday night in Yankee Stadium, and CC Sabathia will be on the mound. Everything else is kind of up in the air.

As of this moment, the Yankees would play the Tigers in the ALDS. However, if Detroit wins tonight and the Rangers lose, the Yankees will play Texas. That’s the only scenario in which the Yankees would play a rematch of the 2010 ALCS in the 2011 ALDS. Anything other than a Tigers win and a Rangers loss results in a rematch of the 2006 ALDS. We could argue about which team we’d rather see the Yankees face from here until first pitch on Friday, but the bottom line is that both of those teams are really, really good. They’re not in the playoffs by accident.

If you want the Yankees to face the Rangers, it’s likely because you like the way the Yankees matchup against Texas’ left-handed starters and/or fear the duo of Justin Verlander and Doug Fister. If you want them to face the Tigers, then it probably has to do with the Rangers’ prodigious offense and the general shakiness of Detroit’s pitching staff behind the two guys at the top of the rotation. There’s a million other factors we can consider as well (the Rangers’ bullpen, Miguel Cabrera, etc.), but here’s the thing to remember: it’s a five-game series, and five-game series are very prone to volatility.

That’s why I’m not all that concerned about who the Yankees face in the ALDS. It’s going to be a tough assignment either way, and the best possible matchup isn’t guaranteed to manifest itself in a short series. Sure, the Yankees might do really well against Texas’ left-handers across 162 games, but anything can happen in a best-of-five. Verlander is likely to pitch to a sub-3.00 ERA across 34 starts, but one bad pitch in the ALDS changes everything. It probably sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true. Weird things happen in baseball all the time, and the impact of the weird stuff magnifies in short playoff series.

If you’re going to put a gun to my head, I guess I’d rather see Yankees-Rangers than Yankees-Tigers. I’d prefer to have New York play as many games in hitters’ parks as possible, in part because that’s how their team is built. Verlander (and to a much lesser extent, Fister) is phenomenal, but he’s not unbeatable, and I’m pretty confident in the Yankees scoring runs against pretty much anyone. Just keep that in mind when you’re scoreboard watching tonight, there’s no such thing as a great matchup in a short series*.

* Unless the Yankees are playing the Twins.

Report: Betances draws the Game 162 start

After keeping us on pins and needles throughout the night, word leaked that the Yankees will start 23-year-old Dellin Betances tonight against the Tampa Bay Rays, Marc Topkin of The St. Petersburg Times reported. Betances, one of the Yanks’ top pitching prospects, made his Major League debut last week against the Rays but had a less-than-stellar outing. Showing signs of nerves and rust after a long layoff, the tall righty allowed two runs on four walks and a hit batter in just 0.2 innings. Betances, a New York native, split the season between AA and AAA where he sported a 10.1 K/9 IP but walked 5 per 9. While the Rays are trying to win the Wild Card or at least force a Game 163 against the Red Sox, the Yankees will showcase a player who figures to be a part of their future tonight.

Is there an advantage to the lineup flip-flop?

Yesterday Joe Girardi made a small lineup change that made many fans immensely happy. Robinson Cano, long thought of as an ideal No. 3 hitter, hit in that very spot, while Mark Teixeira, who has floundered at times this season, dropped back into Cano’s No. 5 spot. All parties seem to be on board with the switch. Teixeira himself even liked it, admitting that his left-handed swing needed work this off-season. The move certainly makes intuitive sense, but will that translate into tangible results?

One thing to keep in mind is that Cano, hitting mostly in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots this season, has hit with more runners on base than Teixeira, who has spent all but a few games at No. 3. Cano has also done a better job of driving in those runners, bringing home 21 percent of his 439 baserunners. Teixeira has driven in 17 percent of his 413 runners. So if Cano has seen more runners and has driven in more from his No. 5 spot, why move him?

Curtis Granderson helps put the issue in perspective. He has taken plenty of runners off base from the No. 2 hole, leaving fewer runners for Teixeira and Cano. Last year, batting mostly in the No. 5 spot, Cano came to bat with 470 runners on base, or 3.38 for every 5 PA. This year he’s down to 3.26 base runners per 5 PA. Teixeira is obviously more greatly affected, since he hits directly behind Granderson. In 2010 he saw 3.41 base runners per 5 PA, while this year he’s seen just 3.05 per 5 PA.

Of course, we can’t expect Granderson to continue his regular season home run pace in the postseason. That mitigates some of the baserunner issues, because Granderson won’t be taking them off base so frequently. In fact, as Granderson’s home run pace has somewhat slowed he’s taken more free passes. While his season walk rate is 12.4 percent, it has jumped to 14.3 percent in the last two months. That might give Cano a few additional opportunities with runners on base.

It does seem odd that the Yankees made this switch so late in the season. Cano has done fine work in the No. 5 hole. He has not only seen more runners on base than Teixeira in the No. 3 hole, but he has driven in a greater percentage of those runners. That would seem to be of importance come playoff time. But the Yankees can’t rely on Granderson’s homers as much, and that changes the equation slightly. It’s hard to predict where the runners will come from in the postseason, so it’s best for Girardi to set the order in the manner he sees as optimal.

As the numbers show, though, there’s not an enormous difference. Combine that with the unpredictable nature of the postseason (due to the small number of games), and it’s essentially a wash. Thankfully, all parties are on board with the move. That makes it a bit more palatable. We can only hope that it gives Cano just a few more opportunities to do what he’s done all season long.

Gary Sanchez ranked among top 20 Sally League prospects

Baseball America’s looked at the top 20 prospects in each minor league continued today with the Low-A South Atlantic League. Gary Sanchez ranked  14th, the only Yankees farmhand to crack a rather stacked list. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, arguably the two best prospects in baseball, topped the list.

In the subscriber-only scouting report, Bill Ballew says “Sanchez’s bat speed and strength ranked among the best in the league, though his swing gets too long at times.” The biggest problem is his defense, “because he stabs at pitches instead of shifting his body.” Sanchez led the league with 26 passed balls in just 60 games behind the plate. “He’s had to adjust to a lot of things both on and off the field,”  said Charleston manager Aaron Ledesma, a gentle little reminder that Sanchez was demoted to Extended Spring Training for a few weeks in the middle of the season because of attitude problems.

The next top 20 list of interest to the Yankees is the High-A Florida State League, which will be posted on Monday. The Tampa Yankees were a pretty weak squad in terms of prospects this year, but it’s a solid bet that Brett Marshall will make an appearance. Jose Quintana and the Almontes (Zoilo and Abe) might sneak on, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Best/Worst Day of the Year

There’s nothing better than pennant race baseball. The Yankees have already wrapped up their playoff spot and division title, and although we still don’t know who they’re going to play in the ALDS, we do know that Game One will start at 8:37pm ET on Friday night in Yankee Stadium. The last week of games has been relatively stress free, but that’s all going to change in two days.

Other teams are not so lucky though. The Yankees have been directly involved in the AL wildcard race over the last week and a half, a race that may or may not come to an end today. The Rays didn’t surge and catch the Red Sox as much as Boston blew their nine-game lead this month, and depending on today’s games, either one of those two teams will win the wildcard today or they’re going to play a Game 163 tomorrow. There is nothing more exciting than that, especially since we get to sit back and enjoy the game with no real rooting interest. Yeah, we all want the Sox to lose, but I can’t imagine many people will get all worked up over the game.

It’s not just the Sox and Rays either. In case you haven’t noticed, the Braves blew an eight-game wildcard lead over in the NL this month, and as of last night they’re tied with the Cardinals for the final playoff spot in the so-called Senior Circuit. Those two clubs are in the exact same situation as Boston and Tampa, someone could win the wildcard outright today, or they will end up playing a Game 163 tomorrow. Two Game 163’s? That would be amazing. There’s absolutely nothing better than playoff baseball, and make no mistake, these four teams are playing postseason games today.

* * *

There’s nothing worse than the final day of the season. The 162 games seem to go by a little quicker with each passing year, and by now memories of early season games have blurred together. Tough losses have been all but forgotten, exciting wins are now little more than afterthoughts. Every team in every season has ups and downs, it’s just the nature of the game, but all those highs and lows are going on hiatus now. They’re gone until the spring.

More than anything else, I’ll miss the routine. The daily routine of work, Yankees, sleep we all seem to live during the summer. Some of you might go to school, but all of us manage to squeeze a meal or two in there somewhere. Those are the three constants though, for six months of the year those are the three things life revolves around. And all of a sudden, the routine is gone. What am I supposed to do with myself from 7pm until I go to bed each night (yay!) during the winter? It’s legit depressing.

We Yankees fans got to experience a  whole lot of  good this year. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera made history. Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia surprised everyone. Curtis Granderson made a run at the MVP. Ivan Nova came into his own and David Robertson punched a hole in his ceiling and went even higher. Jesus Montero added some late season excitement. The playoffs are their own kind of monster, this alternate baseball world where the season seems to hinge on every pitch. The regular season is different though. It’s long and monotonous, at times even boring, but there’s a certain comfort in that. Baseball is a way of life in the Axisa household, so today is very bittersweet. Bring on the playoffs, even thought they mean the end of the routine.