Fresh start for Yankees-Tigers

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 2, 2011

Push the reset button.

The Division Series between the Yankees and Tigers is now a best-of-three, starting with a showdown between the teams’ respective aces, Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia and Tigers righty Justin Verlander, on Monday night.

Home-field advantage now belongs to the Tigers, who will host the next two games at Comerica Park before returning to Yankee Stadium, if necessary. And from the Yankees’ perspective, Monday’s night game is practically an elimination game, considering that their starter will be erratic righty A.J. Burnett.

Is it too late for the Yankees to trade for Bruce Chen?

Kidding aside, the split of the first two games amplified some of the expected concerns entering the series and raised additional issues for both clubs. Here are five things we’ll be talking about — and, if you’re a fan of one of the teams, perhaps worrying about — as the series evolves.


Verlander and Sabathia


Both should be fine on Monday night, but starting pitchers are creatures of habit, and the routines of both aces were disrupted by their abbreviated appearances in Game 1.

Sabathia threw 27 pitches before play was suspended. Verlander threw 25 pitches, comparing the outing to a “pretty intense bullpen session.”

The workload was demanding enough for both managers to avoid using the pitchers in Game 2 — an adjustment that would have enabled either or both to start Game 5 on three days rest, if necessary.

Sabathia, who had a 4.30 ERA in his last nine regular-season starts, found encouragement in his Game 1 start, saying his fastball command was “a lot better.” He will need that command again; the pressure on Sabathia arguably is greater than it is on Verlander, thanks to the Burnett factor.

Right-hander Rick Porcello, the Tigers’ Game 4 starter, is not entirely trustworthy either, but he had a 3.55 ERA in September. Burnett’s ERA for the season is 5.15.

So, Sabathia might be pitching to save the Yankees’ season, and who knows? A poor start could make the Yankees think twice about re-signing him if, as expected, he opts out of his contract and becomes a free agent.


Battle of the bullpens


Verlander ranked first in the AL in innings during the regular season and Sabathia fourth, so the bullpens likely will be reduced to a secondary role on Monday night.

If not, the edge could go to the Yankees.

Manager Joe Girardi, rather than use one of his principal setup men, turned to right-hander Luis Ayala in the ninth inning Sunday with his club trailing by three runs. Ayala allowed another run, and the Yankees’ last-gasp comeback in the bottom half fell short, sealing their 5-3 defeat.

Still, there is a carry-over effect: As the teams brace for games each of the next two nights, the Yankees’ principal relievers are quite rested. Setup men Rafael Soriano and David Robertson have yet to appear in the series, and closer Mariano Rivera has thrown just three pitches.

The Tigers are in a different position.

Leyland asked setup man Joaquin Benoit to get more than three outs for only the fourth time this season Sunday. Benoit threw 23 pitches in two innings, allowing a home run to Curtis Granderson. Closer Jose Valverde, meanwhile, struggled in his one inning, throwing 34 pitches in a driving rain and allowing two runs.

Both pitchers said they would be OK for Monday night, and Valverde bounced back from a similar outing earlier in the season. He threw a season-high 35 pitches against the Yankees on May 2, then returned for a 10-pitch save the next night.

“I’ll be OK to save the game,” Valverde said. “Benoit will be ready. Everyone will be ready. We can’t lose one more game.”

Actually, the Tigers can lose one more, but Valverde’s point was clear: The games are too meaningful for anyone to complain of fatigue.


Alex Rodriguez


He’s an issue, no matter how much Girardi denies it.

Rodriguez, who has appeared in only 21 games since July 7 due to knee surgery and a thumb injury, is 0-for-8 with a walk and RBI groundout in the series

Leyland gave a damning assessment after Game 2, saying he considered walking Robinson Cano intentionally to face Rodriguez with the tying runs on base in the ninth.

“That’s a great question,” Leyland said. “You know what, I thought about it.”

Leyland opted against the move, saying Rodriguez has been “known for the dramatics,” and that he didn’t want to load the bases and reduce Valverde’s margin for error on a wet field.

Cano grounded out to end the game, but if A-Rod was A-Rod, this discussion would not even be taking place.

Girardi, when asked about Rodriguez’s condition before Game 1, said, “I really think if it wasn’t New York and it wasn’t Alex, this wouldn’t have been such a big deal.”

Tell it to the fans who booed A-Rod loudly after he popped up in his final at-bat Sunday.


Miguel Cabrera


The Tigers have no such issues in the middle of their order (well, other than Delmon Young, the team’s notoriously impatient No. 3 hitter, seeing only 12 pitches while going 0-for-5 on Sunday.)

Cabrera hit a two-out, two-run, opposite-field homer off a 2-0 breaking ball from Yankees right-hander Freddy Garcia in the first inning, then an RBI single off a 1-1 changeup with one out in the sixth, knocking Garcia out of the game.

Did the Yankees consider walking Cabrera with two on in the latter situation?

“You can,” Girardi said. “But the next guy has got to hit.”

The next guy, Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez, led the American League with a .394 batting average with runners in scoring position during the regular season. Cabrera ranked second at .388.

The Yankees might not want to walk Cabrera, but they will need to execute better pitches against him than Garcia did on Sunday.


Game 5


OK, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. But Game 5, if it happens, could be a blast.

The starters would be Tigers right-hander Doug Fister and Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova. But Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer, who touched 98 mph while taking a no-hitter into the sixth on Sunday, could work in relief (though his occasional inability to throw strikes would be a concern). Sabathia and Verlander also could be available, on two days rest.

Verlander, asked what he would tell Leyland about his potential availability, evoked laughter in his news conference with his response.

“I might not say anything,” Verlander said. “Maybe I’ll just go down to the bullpen.

“I know he won’t let me. I’ve tried too many times before. He always says no and gets mad at me. If I go down there and he sees me warming up, maybe he’ll think differently.”

Fun to think about, no?

Fun series.

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