Many factors favor Yankees in Game 5

BY Bob Klapisch • October 5, 2011

It has been six years since the New York Yankees were in a deciding game in the postseason, but it might as well be another lifetime. In 2005, Joe Torre’s regime was already in decline, reeling from the humiliation of the previous October’s collapse to the Boston Red Sox.

This time it was the Angels’ turn. They took down the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Division Series. It wasn’t a pretty memory: The Bombers quickly trailed by three runs, Mike Mussina was knocked out in the third inning, and the crowd at Angel Stadium spent the rest of the night enjoying what felt like the end of an era.

Everything seems different now, however.

Even though the ALDS between the Yankees and Detroit Tigers is dead even, it’s the Yankees who have taken psychological control of the series. The Tigers? They had their chance in Game 4 on Tuesday night, facing the Bombers’ worst starter (A.J. Burnett) and a Yankees lineup that was bogged down by three automatic outs (Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher).

The fact the Tigers were playing in front of their own fans should have been the final intangible to send them to the ALCS. Incredibly, Detroit ended up in an alternate universe, where Burnett was almost untouchable after the first inning, the Yankees’ defense was brilliant and even A-Rod started hitting.

So what’s that mean for Game 5? If you believe in momentum, the Yankees are already halfway to the opener against Texas.

Even though they will be facing the formidable Doug Fister, the Bombers still believe the matchup favors Ivan Nova, an extreme ground-ball pitcher who will be less likely to fall victim to Yankee Stadium’s home-run gusts in right field.

Nova’s 1.20 ground ball-fly ball ratio isn’t just the best among Yankees pitchers, it was placed him seventh in the American League. The kid has as much confidence as CC Sabathia, not to mention a long, loose delivery that caused problems for the Tigers’ hitters in Game 1.

Several of them admitted to not being able to distinguish his change-up from his fastball, which allowed Nova to limit them to two runs in 6-1/3 innings. Nova's ability to disguise his pitches will be a key factor in Game 5, too. Unless the Tigers can make an adjustment, they’ll be entirely reliant on Fister to shut down the awakened Yankees offense.

Can he? The right-hander was effective the first time through the Bombers’ lineup in Game 1, but that changed in the fifth inning, when Cano launched a massive RBI double off the left-field wall, and in the sixth, when Fister allowed five of the seven batters he faced to reach base.

By the time Al Alburquerque was summoned, the Yankees already had a 4-1 lead. The Tigers were sunk the instant Cano’s grand slam landed in the right-field seats.

Those are the images that remain with the Yankees as they’re poised to recreate that energy. Jim Leyland was right when he said, “There's no question about it. Yankee Stadium, it's going to be hopping.”

That’s a much milder description of what the Tigers are in for. A tough, expectant crowd is the second factor working in the Yankees’ favor: The fans will be waiting for the Tigers, ready to pick up on the Midwesterners’ anxiety the moment they walk in the building. New Yorkers, after all, have been trained in psychological warfare against the Red Sox. The Tigers, by comparison, just don’t seem as dangerous.

That is, unless they unveil Justin Verlander, their nuclear weapon, in an emergency relief appearance. The right-hander is the one asset who instantly could change the Game 5 chemistry. He’s the one pitcher the Yankees do fear, and rightfully so. Verlander not only struck out 11 in Game 3, but there were stretches when he was literally unhittable.

In fanning six of eight Yankees between the fourth and sixth innings, Verlander went into another consciousness in a 15-pitch sequence. In that time, the Yankees didn’t make contact whatsoever — not one foul ball, not even a foul tip.

Leyland would prefer not to jeopardize Verlander by pitching him on two days’ rest, but if Fister is ineffective there may be no other choice. The Tigers’ long man, Brad Penny, has a 5.30 ERA and 1.563 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched). Alburquerque, who came in to the series with the best swing-and-miss ratio in the majors (43 percent) has retired only one batter in two appearances. His series WHIP stands at 9.00. Overall, Detroit’s bullpen has been a disaster, with a 10.93 ERA and .355 batting average against.

The Yankees, by contrast, are practically begging the Tigers to get into their pen. Everyone’s rested, including Mariano Rivera. When manager Joe Girardi says his team has an “opportunity” in Game 5, he means the machinery is working in perfect sync. That’s as close as the manager will come to predicting victory — he’s too smart to say it any more bluntly — but he likes what transpired in Game 4.

And that was a six-run eighth inning that dealt a blow to the Tigers’ self-esteem. Leyland admitted, “we let it get out of hand” as the fans started heading for the exits. The Tigers still have weapons at their disposal — Miguel Cabrera being the most formidable — but unless Fister can keep the ball out of the air, and unless Verlander’s fastball is intact on short notice, the Yankees are on the verge of rewriting a dark passage from their own history.

The ’04 and ’05 teams, after all, weren’t nearly as fierce as the core that won four championships in five years in the late ‘90s. The 2011 Yankees are a far cry from the ’98 edition, but if these do-or-die moments are the measure of greatness, these Bombers are ready to create a legacy of their own.

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