1) The Marcus Thames/Lance Berkman DH Combo
When you look at the Yankee lineup, you probably don't stop and give too much thought to Marcus Thames or Lance Berkman when you see their names penciled in. On a team that features A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Nick Swisher, these guys almost become afterthoughts, certainly not players that you build your pitching strategy around or worry about beating you late in games.
Unfortunately for the Minnesota Twins, that's exactly what happened in the ALDS. Thames and Berkman combined to go 4-11 in the 3 games with a 2B, 2 HRs, 4 RBIs, and 3 runs scored. Berkman's 2B in Game 2 turned out to be the game-winning RBI and Thames' 2-run bomb in Game 3 turned a 2-0 lead into a 4-0 lead and all but killed the Twins' hopes of coming back. Each of these guys has accepted their roles as situational DH hitters and performed those roles as well as any Yankee fan could have wanted against the Twins.
How that success translates over to this series against the Rangers remains to be seen. Thames will get the starts against C.J. Wilson in Game 1 and Cliff Lee in Game 3, and has had some success against both. He is 5-11 lifetime against Wilson and although he is just 7-36 overall off of Lee, 3 of those hits have gone for home runs. Berkman actually has more success against Wilson and Lee than he does Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter, but if he can stick his approach that worked against Carl Pavano and work himself into favorable counts, Berkman has shown what he can do with a fastball that catches too much of the plate and both Lewis and Hunter will have that in the back of their minds.
Thames and Berkman, at the very least, give the Rangers one more obstacle they have to overcome as they navigate the Yankee lineup. If they don't respect them and make bad pitches, they'll pay for it. If they think back to what these 2 did to the Twins and try to handle them a little more carefully, that could leads to walks and baserunners, something the Yankees are happy to take. The potential added benefit of Robbie Cano and Jorge seeing a few more pitches to hit in front of these guys wouldn't hurt either. As long as they stay hot, the benefits of what Thames and Berkman have already done and what they have the potential to do in this series are multiple for the Yankee offense.
Once again, I hate to cop out to something that is considered "intangible" and can't be measured by statistics, but given the drastic difference in situations for these 2 teams, I believe it warrants mentioning in this case.
Winning the series against the Rays was a big deal for the Texas Rangers. It was the first time in team history that they won a playoff series and they celebrated like motherfuckers after the win. ESPN Dallas even devoted an entire story to the continued celebration with the fans
upon the team's return to Texas after Game 5. I know that by the time tomorrow night rolls around plenty of time will have passed since then, but are the Rangers going to be fully focused on the task still ahead of them or do they run the risk of still being caught up on finally winning a postseason series and falling into "just happy to be there" territory? I mean go ahead, celebrate, enjoy the victory, but remember that in the grand scheme of things you still haven't won shit yet, and when I'm reading about pitchers blasting music from iPod speakers and the team owner shaking every fan's hand like they just won the World Series, it makes me wonder where the team's focus is truly going to be when Game 1 starts.
The Yankees, on the other hand, know full well what the ALCS is about and how to approach. The majority of the guys on the roster were here last year for the title run and even the guys that weren't have experience to draw from. Kerry Wood pitched in the 2003 NLCS with the Cubs and Lance Berkman has played in a World Series before with the Astros. After all the crap they had to listen to heading into the ALDS about their rotation issues, how poorly they played down the stretch, and how Mo wasn't pitching well, the Yanks regrouped and reminded everybody over a 4-day period why the won the title last year and why they should still be the favorites this year. Plus they still have motivation to draw from by being the Wild Card and having to win this series on the road as well.
Bottom line, the Yankees have been here before and the Rangers (save for Bengie Molina and Darren Oliver) have not. The Yankees are coming in calm and focused on the task at hand while the Rangers are coming in off the high and excitement of winning their first playoff series. The Yankees have buttloads of ALCS experience to draw from and the Rangers have next to none. So when that pressure starts to set in, how will they be able to handle it? If Neftali Feliz's performance in the division series is any indication, the Rangers might have a bit more of a mountain to climb to get right mentally for this series.
3) The Bullpens
And we segue beautifully from Neftali's ALDS meltdown into the last, and most important, factor in determining the winner of this series, the bullpens. Both of the teams' 'pens had up and down years from its members, particularly against each other. In the 8 regular season matchups between the Yanks and Rangers, the combined stats of the bullpen guys who will play in this series looked like this:
- NY: 17 IP, 14 H, 10 BB. 5 ER, 14 K, 2.65 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 1-2 record, 2 SV, 2 BS
- TX: 16 IP, 14 H, 3 BB, 3 ER, 23 K, 1.69 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 2-1 record, 1 SV, 1 BS
That's a lot of activity for just 8 games with all the wins, losses, and blown saves accumulated by the bullpens. These totals include multiple bumps in the road for Mo, something that occurred with him down the stretch of the regular season and something that Yankee fans are never accustomed to seeing. Overall the Rangers' 'pen was clearly more effective than the Yankees', allowing fewer baserunners and runs and striking out more guys. Since the postseason started, however, it has been a different story. Observe:
- NY 'pen: 7 IP, 7 H, 3 BB, 1 ER, 5 K, 2 SV, 1.29 ERA, 1.43 WHIP
- TX 'pen: 13.2 IP, 16 H, 5 BB, 8 ER, 15 K, 0 SV, 5.27 ERA, 1.54 WHIP
The Yankee numbers are solid but don't completely blow you away, until you consider the fact that Kerry Wood's Game 3 totals inflate them quite a bit. Eliminate that one shitty outing and the Yankees are looking at 0 runs allowed and a 1.00 WHIP from the 'pen in 6.2 IP. The Ranger 'pen, on the other hand, has been a disaster so far, with nobody outside of Darren O'Day pitching particularly well. They have put too many guys on base and haven't been able to make big pitches in big spots to get out of innings. The fact that Ron Washington is so quick to use them and isn't exactly a rocket scientist when it comes to managing his relievers is also cause for concern.
The Yankees have their pecking order set, have other guys on standby who had solid years should they need to go deeper (Joba, Mitre), and have the greatest closer of all time back pitching like the greatest closer of all time and shattering enough bats to start a good-sized bonfire. The Rangers have a closer who has looked ready to shit himself both times he's been out there already in this postseason, no clear cut shutdown setup man, and nobody who can step in and handcuff the Yankee lefties. The moments aren't going to get smaller and the pressure is going to lessen in this series, so the Rangers are going to have to step up, if they can.
The Yankee lineup is deeper and more cyclical than that of the Rangers, and Josh Hamilton still doesn't look completely recovered from his rib injury, so you have to give the Yankees a slight edge there. Their rotation went deeper into games than that of the Rangers, and their manager will allow a little more slack to Andy and Phil Hughes than Washington will with everybody not named Cliff Lee. That gives the Yankees an advantage there, even if their starters don't pitch as well as they did in the ALDS, which translates to an advantage in the bullpen as well, where they have the better pitchers who should be called on to pitch fewer innings. Factor in the potential first-time effect that the younger Rangers could experience and all signs point to a Yankee victory. It won't be a cakewalk like the division series was, but I still see it never being in doubt.
Yankees in 6