Five thoughts before tonight's awesome Game 5:
1. Everybody seems to be giving Ivan Nova the big edge over Doug Fister in the pitching matchup, which I don't necessarily understand. Well, I do understand why; In his Game 1 relief appearance/start, Nova pitched 6.1 innings and didn't allow a run until his final inning. I would hardly call it a dominating effort -- he walked four guys and struck out five -- but he kept the runs off the board. While everyone says he won't get rattled, I think the Tigers would be wise to be patient and see if he's getting ahead early in the count. One thing Nova has done well in the second half is keep the ball in the park: After allowing nine home runs total in May and June, he allowed just four over the final three months. The Tigers can't expect to beat him with the long ball tonight. Meanwhile, I expect Fister to pitch much better than his Game 1 outing. As our Yankee blog pointed out, Fister loves to get ahead of hitters; when he gets ahead 0-1, batters hit just .196 against him this season. The Yankees will have to balance their usual patience with perhaps a little more aggressiveness than normal.
2. The biggest boost Nova may get is Jim Leyland's inability to construct a lineup that passes a basic test for common sense. OK, he hits Austin Jackson leadoff. We'll let that one slide, even though Jackson has a poor on-base percentage (.317 on the season). But Leyland is moving Don Kelly into the No. 2 slot, playing third base. Yes, he's 3-for-7 in the series, but his OBP this season was .291, and .285 for his career. Kelly is not a good major league hitter. Batting third is Delmon Young, who has drawn rave reviews since coming to the Tigers. His OBP with Detroit? .298. The rest of the lineup: Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Magglio Ordonez, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Ramon Santiago. It remains a mystery why Leyland wants three guys who do a poor job of getting on base batting in front of the most feared hitter in the American League, and it makes it easier to avoid giving Cabrera much to hit. The Yankee lineup remains unchanged.
3. Leyland has also said Justin Verlander won't pitch tonight. He seems pretty definitive about that, although those things have a way of changing in the middle of the game. As dominant as David Robertson and Mariano Rivera have been at the back end of the bullpen for the Yankees, let's not forget that Joaquin Benoit has been lights-out in the second half (1.13 ERA, .116 batting average allowed), although he did serve up a home run to Curtis Granderson in Game 2. I suspect both managers will use their back-end bullpen duos for nine outs if necessary. If neither starter makes it through six innings, then the middle relief comes into play: the Yankees have Rafael Soriano, the underrated Cory Wade, Boone Logan to face the struggling Alex Avila and maybe CC Sabathia (I still think it's unlikely we see Sabathia, except in an extra-innings scenario); the Tigers have ... well, it will be interesting to see who Leyland trusts right now. Al Albuquerque was better than Ryan Perry during the season, but I suspect we'd see Perry first. Phil Coke is the lefty Leyland could use to face Robinson Cano or Brett Gardner; Mark Teixeira is better from the right side of the plate (.967 OPS versus .779, .940 versus .799 in 2010), so I wouldn't want Coke facing Teixeira.
4. Certainly, the other key guy for Detroit is Avila, hitless in the series after finishing eighth in the AL in OPS during the regular season. Since 2005, three players who hit .290 or higher in the regular season (among qualifiers) went hitless in a Division Series: Bill Mueller (2005 Red Sox), Aramis Ramirez (2007 Cubs) and Chone Figgins (2009 Angels). I won't say it's must for Avila to do something, but they sure could use his lefty bat to pop one.
5. This is just the fifth sudden-death game since 2006. In the previous four, the only starter who failed to last six innings was Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS. He went five innings and allowed two runs and got the win anyway. So if recent history is any indication, expect both starters to keep their teams in the game. Nova is the first rookie since Dice-K and just the 13th overall to start a sudden-death game. If you want to go back further, since 2000 there have been 20 such games, with the starting pitchers averaging 5.4 innings per start with a 4.30 ERA and 91 pitches. Of course, that takes us back to a higher-scoring time.
Anyway, let's hope for a tight, drama-filled game and let's admit: It would be fun to see CC and Verlander out there in the 12th inning, wouldn't it?