The New York Yankees are the top seed in the American League playoffs. The Yankees have home-field advantage through the first two postseason rounds. The Yankees are, well, the Yankees.
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But there’s a very real chance their season will be over by Friday.
After Monday’s oddball epic — a 3-2 Baltimore Orioles victory, featuring four errors and baserunning vaudeville — the AL Division Series is now a best-of-three affair. Yes, the remainder of the series will be contested at Yankee Stadium. But consider the following:
• The Orioles went 6-3 in the Bronx this year. They won two of three games each time they came to Yankee Stadium. If they do that again, the Orioles will advance to the AL Championship Series.
• October visits to Yankee Stadium aren’t as frightful as they used to be. Since winning the 2009 World Series, the Yankees are 3-4 at home in the postseason. They lost a winner-take-all Game 5 to the Tigers in last year’s ALDS.
• The Orioles are historically comfortable in tight games. They went 29-9 (.763) in one-run games during the regular season, the highest such winning percentage in major-league history. They were 11-0 in extra-inning games on the road. And thanks to an elite bullpen, the Orioles are 76-0 when leading after seven innings (including the postseason).
It would be absurd to suggest the Orioles have the Yankees right where they want them. The series is tied, not 2-0 in favor of Baltimore. But the Orioles have every reason to be confident heading into Wednesday’s Game 3. Buck Showalter’s team has thrived in big moments throughout the season, including last Friday’s wild-card win — on the road — over the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers.
“The biggest thing for us is we feel comfortable playing in New York,” Orioles slugger Chris Davis said after Monday’s win. “Obviously, it’s going to be a little different atmosphere with playoff baseball. As long as we can continue to do what we’ve done all year and really just focus on our goals and our expectations, I think we’ll be all right. The fact that we’ve been so good in close games and in extra innings and the fact that our bullpen has been so strong down the stretch really bodes well for us.
“With the one game playoff in Texas we were able to gain a little bit of experience, what it’s like to play playoff baseball. We’re just kind of learning on the fly with this team. We’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of guys that don’t have postseason experience. But we also have guys like Jim Thome who have been around and know what to expect. As long as we focus on what we can control, I think we’ll be all right.”
That, in essence, has been the Orioles’ approach all season. They are comfortable in tense, late-game situations out of necessity. Their starting rotation isn’t dominant. Their strikeout-prone, homer-dependent lineup isn’t consistent. But 93 times out of 162, they found a way to win.
The Game 3 pitching matchup is fitting: New York’s Hiroki Kuroda vs. Baltimore’s Miguel Gonzalez. Both are new to their teams this year. Kuroda, one of the most sought-after free agent starters, signed a one-year, $10 million contract in January, as the Yankees threw money at their biggest weakness. Gonzalez, by comparison, figured he would spend this season with Cancún of the Mexican League and didn’t sign with the Orioles until after spring training began.
Gonzalez, 28, didn’t pitch at all during the 2008 and 2009 seasons because of injuries, had thrown only one game above Class AA prior to this year and was let go after last season by an organization (the Boston Red Sox) in desperate need of pitching. And yet the Orioles might have the pitching edge in this game. Gonzalez went 6-2 with a 2.49 ERA over his last 10 starts, including seven shutout innings at Yankee Stadium Aug. 31. While Kuroda led the Yankees’ full-time starters in ERA and innings, he faded a little down the stretch; he was unable to complete the sixth inning in two of his final three outings.
Game 4 — Phil Hughes for the Yankees, Chris Tillman or Joe Saunders for the Orioles — could favor Baltimore, too. The Yankees must win one of the next two to give CC Sabathia the chance to start on regular rest in a winner-take-all Game 5.
Really, the Yankees must sweep the next two or risk starting the ALCS at a disadvantage. Most obviously, they would prefer to have Sabathia and Andy Pettitte pitch Games 1 and 2 against Detroit or Oakland. But the schedule itself is the greater concern: The ALCS opens Saturday, weather permitting. If the Orioles and Yankees require Game 5 Friday night, the victor will play five games in five days — which means five starters on regular rest, not four.
In other words, David Phelps could easily start for the Yankees in the ALCS — if they get that far.
The Yankees can say Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher are bound to impact the series in New York more than they did in Baltimore. But the Orioles can make the same point about J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. The reality is these teams are evenly matched: The Yankees have the better lineup. The Orioles have the deeper bullpen, with Brian Matusz suddenly looking like David Price circa 2008. Aside from Sabathia, the rotations are indistinguishable.
The Yankees outspend the Orioles, 3-to-1. The Yankees have made 14 playoff appearances since Baltimore’s last postseason series victory. The Yankees can summon all the October ghosts to 161st Street and River Avenue. None of that intimidates the Orioles. For those who wear the pinstripes, the next three days will be frightful indeed.