BRONX, NY — For Yankees fans, the postseason is considered a birthright. The regular season? It’s nothing more than an annoying, protracted stretch of games that determines seeding in the playoffs.
In the American League portion of the MLB postseason this year, the defending World Series Champions are, technically, the fourth seed since they’re winners of the 2010 AL Wild Card.
In baseball, however, seeding doesn’t tell you the story; the Texas Rangers, for instance, finished the season five games worse than New York at 90-72, but they are the third seed because they won their division, the American League West.
Texas, behind ace Cliff Lee, will head down to Tampa Bay to take on the first-seeded Rays, winners of the AL East, while the Yankees will lock horns with the AL’s second seed, the Minnesota Twins, in a rematch of last year’s American League Division Series.
This time, the Twins, who were swept by New York in that series, have home field advantage. Minnesota won the AL Central by six games, with the second place Chicago White Sox falling well out of contention in the second half of the season.
The scene of Game 1 of the best-of-five series tonight between New York and Minnesota is Target Field, the new ballpark that replaced the Metrodome as the Twins’ home this year. CC Sabathia will take the mound for the Yankees opposite Twins starter Francisco Liriano.
In Game 2, also at Minnesota, veteran Andy Pettitte is scheduled to make his 41st career playoff start, which will come against former Yankee Carl Pavano, who couldn’t possibly be more despised by Yankees fans than he already is for having an injury-plagued tenure in pinstripes that limited him to 26 starts in four years.
When the series shifts to the Bronx this Saturday night, Phil Hughes and Nick Blackburn will start Game 3 for New York and Minnesota, respectively.
THE SERIES IN A NUTSHELL: You like CC Sabathia over Francisco Liriano in Game 1, but look for Carl Pavano to stick it to his old mates by giving the Twins a chance to earn a split, even if Andy Pettitte turns in a valiant effort.
Out of the two teams, the Yankees would benefit more from the series being tied, 1-1. They can live with a split because the next two games would be at Yankee Stadium, giving them a chance to close out the series at home.
The one person who could guarantee the series shifting back to Minnesota for a decisive Game 5, though, is Nick Blackburn. In two starts vs. the Yankees this season, Blackburn went 2-0 with a 3.21 ERA. The right-handed starter pitched seven innings in each outing and managed to give up only five runs on 18 hits.
The stats tell you that, while the Yankee lineup can hit Blackburn, they weren’t successful at converting that production into runs with timely hits with runners in scoring position. Game 3 will come down to Yankees’ ability to deliver a knockout blow early in the game should they have Blackburn on the ropes.
As for the Twins, they need to win at least two of the first three games. If not, they’ll leave the door open for another swift October exit.
Why? Because the Yankees have the edge, not only in experience, but psychologically. Over the last two seasons (including the playoffs), the Yankees have defeated the Twins 14 times in 16 games. The Yankees’ success against the AL Central champs is highlighted by the three consecutive walk-off victories they had against the Twins at Yankee Stadium in May 2009, and Mark Teixeira’s game-winning, line-drive home run to left in the eleventh inning of Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS.
Yesterday, the back page of the New York Daily News dismissed the Twins — much to their chagrin — as pushovers who pose no threat to the Yankees’ chances of advancing to the American League Championship Series.
But in the event that the Twins beat Sabathia in Game 1, all they’d have to do to ensure a Game 5 at Minnesota is win one of the next three games, which they could do behind Pavano or Blackburn. This is paramount because, despite the Yankees being the favorites to win this series in four games — a view that is shared by this reporter — New York, for their sake, better win in four games.
Because the same people who like them to win this series in four, don’t like them in Game 5. The Game 4 starters are the same as the first game: Sabathia and Liriano.
New York is expected to clinch the series in Game 4 with the help of their ace, but again, the certainty Sabathia brings on the mound won’t be there in Game 5 for the Yankees, who — depending on how Andy Pettitte’s health is by then — might be forced to use the train wreck otherwise known as A.J. Burnett in that spot. On the surface, Burnett, who went 3-8 with a 5.95 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break, is on manager Joe Girardi’s playoff roster as a reliever, but in essence he is New York’s insurance policy in case Pettitte’s left groin — which sidelined him for much of the second half — prevents him from making the start.
And if Burnett appears in this series vs. probable Game 5 starter Carl Pavano, at Minnesota — if he has to be used in that capacity — you don’t like the Yankees’ chances. Having said that, the Yankees should be able to avoid that scenario by winning the series, 3 to 1, and move on to play either the Texas Rangers or the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS.