The Orioles and Yankees facing off in the playoffs. No, this isn't the mid-90s…it's the year 2012, and Baltimore's playoff berth is one of the more unexpected events in quite awhile in baseball. Everyone expected this of the Yankees, but the Orioles? Cmon now.
Baltimore has used a rotating batch of starters this year due to injury, ineffectiveness, and everything in between. The Orioles haven't even announced the starters for games four and five, witih manager Buck Showalter playing things by ear. Game one will be started by Jason Hammel, who has missed a lot of time in the second half with a knee injury, but has been Baltimore's best starter over the course of the year. Game two's starter is Wei-Yin Chen, Baltimore's most consistent starter over the course of the season. But game three will be started by an unheralded star for the Orioles this year: Miguel Gonzalez, who has a 3.25 ERA in 15 starts (and three relief appearances this year). Starters Joe Saunders and Chris Tillman are also on the roster for Baltimore, and would likely be in line fors tarts in the late games in the series or long relief appearances in case of struggles from the starting pitching.
As for the Yankees…well, they're the Yankees. Their horse CC Sabathia will be starting game one, and playoff veteran Andy Pettitte will be on the hill in game two. Hiroki Kuroda will make his first playoff start since 2009 in game three, and the shaky Phil Hughes is lined up for game four. Here's what could possibly doom the Yankees in this series: injuries. Sabathia made less than 30 starts for just the second time in his career this season, and Pettitte missed two and a half months after breaking his ankle at the end of June. Could that frailty play into things this series? Perhaps. The overall talent advantage rests with New York regardless though.
The Yankees are only going with seven relievers, perhaps putting undue emphasis on their starters. Two of those relievers, Derek Lowe and David Phelps, can throw multiple innings with ease. New York is also carrying a pair of specialists in Clay Rapada and Boone Logan, and their potentially dominant late game trio of Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Rafael Soriano. The Orioles bullpen on the other hand, doesn't deviate from the formula that worked all season: dominance. Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton, and closer Jim Johnson all make the roster, along with converted starters Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter, who have been much better coming out of the pen this year. Huge advantage to Baltimore here.
New York has a star-studded, ridiculous lineup…assuming everyone is healthy, that is. Mark Teixeira has been banged up all year, as has Alex Rodriguez. Those are two very important bats in their order, and the team gets that much worse if either isn't 100% healthy. At any rate, this is an extremely power-heavy lineup, with five hitters bashing 20 homers and two more falling a couple shy. Baltimore's lineup is also pretty good, and has been receiving contributions from unlikely sources all game, including Nate McLouth, who is now the team's starting left fielder. But with streaky, strikeout-prone hitters Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds in the middle of the order, there's more potential here for a cold spell than with the Yankees' lineup.
Baltimore's bench is simple: a backup catcher (Taylor Teagarden), two backup outfielders (Endy Chavez and Lew Ford), and one infielder (Ryan Flaherty or Robert Andino, who essentially compete for time at second base). New York's bench is a little more complicated, with just one backup outfielder (defensive ace Brett Gardner), the backup catcher (Chris Snyder), a power bat that can play the infield corners (Eric Chavez), a defensive infield backup (Eduardo Nunez), and the jack of all trades (Jayson Nix). Joe Girardi can get cute with things a little more than Buck Showalter, who is putting a lot of faith in the health and effectiveness of his starters.
These two teams split their games against each other in the AL East this season, telling us a little more than nothing. Baltimore went 6-4 against New York in the second half to help spur their playoff run, and a common theme emerged in those second half games. Three of the games were decided by just one run, and five were decided by at least five. So the games were either tight, exciting contests, or utter blowouts. The season series between the teams has been utterly unpredictable, and the better team on paper (the Yankees) has shown no obvious advantage overall. Everything I've looked at tells me that the Yankees are going to stomp the Orioles…but I thought that the Rangers would too. There's something going on around this Orioles team, and no outcome of this series would surprise me.