In dueling Game 5s over a 24-hour span, Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia demonstrated what aces are supposed to do in October.
Verlander stomped to the mound Thursday in Oakland, before a hostile and delirious crowd, and delivered the finest performance of his postseason career: nine innings, zero runs, 11 strikeouts. He rescued a beleaguered bullpen, threw his first playoff complete game, and secured a series victory for the Tigers that seemed so unlikely after the A's won two straight.
One day later, CC Sabathia accomplished something no one thought possible: He changed the conversation away from Alex Rodriguez's benching. The big lefty nearly matched Verlander pitch for pitch. He also went nine. He also surrendered only four hits. He gave up a run, but it hardly mattered in the end. The Yankees eliminated the Orioles, 3-1.
Now the Tigers and Yankees will play for the American League pennant, beginning Saturday night in the Bronx. The temptation is there to portray the ALCS as a confrontation between the current generation's most decorated right- and left-handed starters. There are two problems with that: One is they may never directly oppose one another. The other is Verlander won't pitch until Game 3, and Sabathia may need to wait until Game 4 unless Yankees manager Joe Girardi pitches him on short rest.
So the hitters - on both teams - can swing away in the Bronx for a couple days until Verlander and Sabathia begin to exert their influence after the series shifts to Detroit. It's hard to imagine we'll see an offensive explosion at all, particularly with cold weather in the two cities, but Games 1 and 2 could offer the lineups a chance to strike back.
Neither team performed particularly well offensively in the Division Series. The Tigers averaged 3.4 runs per game, the Yankees 3.2. But each lineup exhibited hopeful signs in its first-round finale. Detroit scored more runs in Game 5 (six) than it had in the previous two combined, with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Delmon Young all driving in a run. Curtis Granderson, who led the Yankees with 43 home runs this year, had by far his best night of this postseason in Game 5, going 2-for-3 with a cathartic shot into the second deck.
Still, Granderson envisions another low-scoring round in the ALCS. After all, the Tigers held their first-round opponent to a .194 batting average; the Yankees were even stingier at .187. "Great pitching staffs on both sides - deep bullpens, great closers," Granderson observed. "The offenses can be potent, but the pitching staffs are (rolling). It's going to be hard to score."
The Yankees outscored the Tigers during last year's AL Division Series, 28-17, but were eliminated when Detroit won the decisive Game 5 at Yankee Stadium. The casts have changed slightly since. The Tigers have a better rotation - Anibal Sanchez in, Rick Porcello out - but closer Jose Valverde is not the same pitcher he was in 2011. For that matter, the same is true of setup man Joaquin Benoit and left-hander Phil Coke, and the weakened bullpen could spell doom at Yankee Stadium. But Detroit's lineup is more imposing than it was last October, with a vastly improved Austin Jackson leading off, Fielder batting cleanup and more athleticism overall (thanks to outfielders Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia).
Sabathia is the lone holdover from the Yankees' 2011 playoff rotation. That's a good thing. Even as he suffers from late-season fatigue, Hiroki Kuroda is an upgrade over A.J. Burnett and two pitchers (Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova) who were left off this year's ALDS roster. Phil Hughes put together a very encouraging outing against the Orioles, and ol' reliable Andy Pettitte will start Game 1 against Detroit.
Of course, fans of both teams should brace themselves for the steady drumbeat of Alex Rodriguez bulletins. (Please accept our apologies in advance. The media fascination with A-Rod's decline is approaching Tebowian levels.) Objectively speaking, it's quite apparent what is happening here: Rodriguez isn't hitting right-handed pitching, so Girardi is exercising his right to use new folk hero Raul Ibañez and Eric Chavez in place of him, as happened Friday.
The bad news continued for A-Rod when the Tigers announced their ALCS rotation late Friday night: Fister, Sanchez, Verlander, Max Scherzer, Fister, Sanchez and Verlander. All are righties.
"People love to get on Alex, but he's been nothing but a great teammate to me and everybody in here," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "We love to be able to pick him up, because he's picked us up plenty. For those who don't remember the '09 World Series and that whole playoff run, if it wasn't for him we don't win that World Series. He picked us up then. We picked him up this series. I think next series he's going to do great."
The Yankees have one disadvantage entering the ALCS. They will (weather permitting) play five games in five days - the last three against Baltimore, the first two with Detroit. Unless Girardi wants to send out Kuroda on short rest, which is highly doubtful, the Yankees must choose a Game 2 starter who wasn't part of the ALDS rotation. Options include David Phelps, Derek Lowe and Nova, with an announcement expected Saturday.
The Tigers had their own scheduling twist: They arrived home Friday morning from Oakland but didn't learn their next stop until after the Yankees-Orioles game went final. (If Baltimore had won, Detroit would have hosted Game 1.) So Tigers officials and players watched the Yankees' Game 5 victory on their own and then gathered for the late-night flight to New York. Not a terribly arduous itinerary, but it was uncommon for a major-league team.
For all the discussion devoted to uncontrollable elements at this time of year - travel, scheduling, weather - the Yankees and Tigers are so professional that such ancillary concerns won't be a factor. (The poor Washington Nationals would love to have an inconvenient game or oddly timed flight in their immediate future.) Last year's best-of-five between the Yankees and Tigers was a thriller. Two more games should make this even better.