Thursday, September 29, 2011
Updated: September 30, 1:21 PM ET
Five questions about Tigers-Yankees
By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
The Tigers and Yankees opened the regular season against each other, with Justin Verlander facing CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium. A lot has happened since then, most of it good, some of it historic. Now, they will open one of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. It might be the best of the four first-round series.
Here are five questions about the series:
1. How good is the Tigers' rotation?
Really good. Verlander, of course, has been the best pitcher in the American League this year, the league's Triple Crown winner. Chances are, he will start twice in the series. But the key to this series might be Detroit's No. 2 starter, Doug Fister, who is 7-0 with an 0.65 ERA in his past eight starts. He is not a power pitcher, but he has been using his curveball more. He also has a good cutter and changeup, and he fields his position as well as anyone in the game. Fister has been the best move made by any team at the trade deadline, as the Tigers swiped him from Seattle. His emergence allows Detroit to drop Max Scherzer to the third spot in the rotation. If Scherzer has his good slider and changeup, there aren't many better No. 3 starters.
2. How good is the Yankees' rotation?
Pretty good. Sabathia is big and strong and healthy and well decorated in the postseason. Plus, he's probably mad, and might take his anger out on the Tigers. That's because he barely missed becoming the first AL pitcher since Roger Clemens (1997-98) to win 20 games in back-to-back seasons, and the first Yankee since Tommy John (1979-80). Rookie Ivan Nova is the No. 2 starter, and he has earned it. He is the only rookie pitcher in the past 65 years to win 12 straight decisions during one season, and the first Yankees rookie to do that since 1939. His hard sinker is very difficult to center, he has good secondary stuff and, for a kid, he doesn't rattle easily. Freddy Garcia will start Game 3. There wasn't much of a choice. Phil Hughes is constantly hurt, Bartolo Colon labored down the stretch and A.J. Burnett is just too much of a walking roulette wheel to count on in a big game.
3. Which team has a better bullpen?
The Yankees. They have the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, who has 42 postseason saves (24 more than anyone else) and a record 0.71 ERA in the playoffs. David Robertson is a strikeout machine. And until a recent hiccup, Rafael Soriano had an eight-inning stretch in which he allowed no runs and struck out 11. Plus, they have a lefty in Boone Logan who has done a terrific job all year. The Tigers aren't quite as deep, but the late surge of Joaquin Benoit ("He looks like the guy that dominated in the eighth inning last year for Tampa Bay," one scout said) and the move of left-hander Phil Coke to the bullpen has greatly strengthened the bridge to the closer. And closer Jose Valverde has converted 50 consecutive save opportunities. "He doesn't scare me," one AL manager said. "He throws two pitches, a two-seamer and a four-seamer. Everyone knows what is coming. I always think we're going to get him, but we never do. That must mean he is great."
4. How improved is the Tigers' offense?
Greatly. Delmon Young, acquired from Minnesota in August, fills a hole in the middle of the order. Wilson Betemit, who platoons at third base with Brandon Inge, "can really hit," one scout said. "He has added another element to that lineup." But Betemit has been bothered by a sore left knee. Miguel Cabrera is swinging the bat better than he has all year, or in several years. "He's the best hitter in our league," said Indians manager Manny Acta. Most important, if anyone pitches around Cabrera, they have to deal with hot-hitting Victor Martinez. Together, Cabrera and Martinez have more walks (154) than strikeouts (140) this season, which is so rare for two power guys in the middle of the order. They are really tough outs, they put the ball in play and if you make a mistake, it's gone.
5. What kind of mojo do the Yankees have going on?
There is a very good vibe around the Yankees. So much has gone wrong this year, there has been so much doubt, but they have played through it all, and finished with the best record in the American League. There was the Derek Jeter slump, and the talk that he was done. There was the flap with Jorge Posada about hitting ninth. There were the questions early about their rotation, led by the issues with Burnett. There were the injuries to Joba Chamberlain, Alex Rodriguez and others. And yet the Yankees not only persevered, but they thrived, and wound up with the best record in the league.
PREDICTION: YANKEES IN FIVE
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: