Full Breakdown of Potential Yankees vs. Orioles One-Game AL East Showdown
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Exactly 159 games into the regular season, the situation in the AL East is just as uncertain as it was way back on Opening Day. It hasn't been won yet.
With three games to play, the New York Yankees find themselves in an unlikely tie with the Baltimore Orioles for first place in the East. Both clubs have the exact same record at 92-67, which exactly none of us saw coming back in spring training (if you're honest, anyway).
In three days' time, it's possible that both the Yankees and the Orioles will still have the exact same record.
In years past, a situation such as that would have been resolved by a series of tiebreakers that didn't involve any extra games. Things are a little different this year, as MLB's new rules call for a game to be played on Thursday that would decide the AL East title, with the loser settling for a wild-card berth.
So let's pretend that the Yanks and O's are destined to be tied atop the division when the regular season comes to a close on Wednesday. They would thus be set up for a one-game winner-takes-the-division ultimate showdown.
It it comes this, here's a look at what the matchup would be like.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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If you're looking for a nice, long, pounding headache, I recommend reading through MLB's new tiebreaker guidelines. They were not devised for people with pedestrian intellects (i.e. me).
But thankfully, the situation that the Yankees and Orioles could find themselves in isn't all that complicated. In the event of a tie, they'd only need the one game on Thursday in order to decide things, and figuring out who would have the home-field advantage doesn't require a Masters degree in gibberish.
The Orioles would have the home-field advantage, and here's why.
Under MLB's tiebeaker rules, the team with the better record in head-to-head play gets the home-field advantage. But since the Yankees and Orioles split their season series this year, the home field would be determined by the two clubs' records in AL East play.
The Orioles have already clinched a better record in AL East play. They have a 42-27 record in intradivision games, whereas the Yankees have a 38-31 record in intradivision games.
So if a tiebreaking game for the AL East title is needed on Thursday, it will be played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
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For the Yankees
There's no need for speculating here. The Yankees have already made their choice for a potential Thursday playoff game, and an obvious one at that.
According to Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com, the Yankees plan on starting veteran left-hander Andy Pettitte on Thursday in Baltimore if a playoff game is needed. He last pitched on Saturday, meaning he'll be pitching on regular rest if he does have to take the mound on Thursday.
Pettitte has been limited to 12 starts this season due to a late start and a broken leg, but he's compiled a nifty 2.87 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. He's walked 21 in 75.1 innings pitched, and he's holding hitters to a .232 batting average. Pretty good for a guy whose stuff is starting to resemble Jamie Moyer's.
Pettitte hasn't faced the Orioles yet this season, so it's conceivable that he'll have an edge due to Baltimore's unfamiliarity with him.
For the Orioles
The Orioles haven't yet revealed who their starter would be if a game is needed on Thursday, and it's not easy to determine who their options are.
Steve Johnson could be an option, as he last started against Boston on Saturday. However, the word from MLB.com is that he started experiencing some left knee discomfort on Sunday.
Apparently, Johnson may have twisted his knee when he was hit by a comebacker off the bat of Dustin Pedroia in his last start. He's having an MRI on it on Monday.
If Johnson can't go on Thursday, one option would be Joe Saunders, who picked up his third win as an Oriole on Sunday. Buck Showalter would have to start him against the Yankees on three days' rest, but he might just do that seeing as how Saunders posted a solid 2.75 ERA in September.
In case you're wondering about Jason Hammel possibly making a return to start on Thursday, the odds of that happening are slim to none. As reported by Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun, Hammel is expected to pitch four or five innings in an instructional league game on Monday as part of his rehab from a right knee injury. He's not going to turn around and start on Thursday after such an outing.
So unless Showalter has a better idea, it's looking like his choice is between a wounded Johnson on regular rest and Saunders on three days of rest.
Not exactly an ideal scenario, but Showalter should be pretty used to non-ideal scenarios when it comes to his starting pitching staff by now.
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How the Yankees Are Looking
Presently, the Yankees are on track to finish second in the American League in runs scored behind the Texas Rangers. They've already hit 236 home runs, by far the most in Major League Baseball.
It was business as usual for the Bombers in September. The Yankees ranked No. 2 in the AL in runs scored in September with 146, and they hit a total of 36 home runs.
Ichiro was the Yankees' top hitter last month, as he hit a cool .385/.400/.516 with a pair of homers and 11 RBI. He's taken quite a liking to the No. 2 hole in the Yankees' lineup over the last week or so, and the rest of the lineup has definitely benefited from his resurgence.
The Yankees' hottest hitter at the moment, however, is Robinson Cano. He's collected multiple hits in each of his last six games. Nick Swisher has benefited from hitting behind Cano, as he has a 1.142 OPS and three homers in his last nine games.
Curtis Granderson, meanwhile, is still struggling to hit for average, but he did hit six home runs and compile a team-high 21 RBI in September. Russell Martin has kept the power coming as well, as he also hit six homers in September.
The good news from the New York Daily News is that the Yankees should be getting Mark Teixeira back on Monday. The Yankees actually haven't missed him all that much, but he'll be a welcome addition, with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez both slumping a little bit at the moment.
The Yankees have done just OK against the Orioles this season, posting a collective .258 average and a .750 OPS against Baltimore pitchers. But at the very least, they know that they're going to be at full strength come Thursday.
How the Orioles Are Looking
The Yankees swung the bats pretty well in September, but the Orioles were swinging the bats even better.
The O's led the American League in runs scored in September with 153. The 47 home runs they hit last month were also tops in the American League.
They're getting power from all over these days. Among the players with at least five homers in September were Adam Jones, Nate McLouth, Mark Reynolds, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters. Reynolds led the way with nine, but Davis was right behind him with eight.
Elsewhere, Manny Machado is still getting it done at the plate, as he hit .289/.319/.456 with four homers and 16 RBI in September. J.J. Hardy posted a solid .720 OPS with four homers last month.
In addition to how well the Orioles have been swinging the bats recently, the Yankees should be worried about how well the Orioles have swung the bats against them all year. Against the Yankees this season, O's hitters have hit 30 home runs while compiling an .819 OPS.
The Yankees need to seriously consider giving Reynolds the Barry Bonds treatment. He's clubbed seven homers against the Yankees this season, and all seven have come since August 31.
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Report on New York's Pen
For the season, Yankees relievers have a 3.48 ERA, and only Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies relievers have logged fewer innings. Yankees relievers have also only blown 13 saves all season, tied for third-fewest in baseball.
In September, however, the Yankees' bullpen was a bit of a mixed bag. It posted a solid 3.76 ERA, but it blew three saves and gave up a total of 16 home runs. No bullpen in the majors surrendered more homers in September.
Not even Rafael Soriano was safe. He had solid numbers for the month, but he coughed up three home runs in September. David Robertson and Cody Eppley both gave up a pair.
Oddly enough, the best relievers Joe Girardi may have at his disposal right now are Joba Chamberlain and Derek Lowe. Chamberlain hasn't done a great job with inherited runners, but he hasn't been scored upon in his last 10 outings, in which he's struck out 12 and walked one in 9.1 innings pitched. Lowe, meanwhile, has a 2.19 ERA and a .146 opponents' batting average in his last nine appearances.
If it comes down to a playoff game against the Orioles on Thursday, the Yankees are going to need their bullpen to be ready to go. Baltimore's pen, after all, is one of the best in the business.
Report on Baltimore's Pen
Baltimore's bullpen owns a 3.01 ERA this season, tying it with Oakland's bullpen for the fourth-best ERA in the majors. Baltimore's bullpen leads the AL in wins with 32 and in saves with 54.
The Orioles have Jim Johnson to thank for the saves. He has 50 of them on the season, and he's blown only three saves all year. Despite a low strikeout rate, he's holding hitters to a .223 batting average.
Johnson was characteristically excellent in September, posting a 0.73 ERA and saving nine games. The rest of Baltimore's bullpen was solid as well, as it posted a collective 2.78 ERA and collected an MLB-high total of 10 wins.
Baltimore's bullpen has had to cover a ton of innings this season, but lately it's gotten a lot of help from an unlikely source. Brian Matusz has emerged as an excellent reliever, posting a 0.96 ERA and a .097 opponents' batting average in September. He's helped take pressure off of guys like Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop and Luis Ayala.
If the Orioles find themselves in a bullpen battle against the Yankees on Thursday, they'll know what to do.
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What Joe Girardi Has to Play With
The Orioles may have a better bullpen than the Yankees, but Girardi may have the stronger bench. He has a player for pretty much every situation.
If Girardi needs a left-handed hitter with power, he can call on either Raul Ibanez or Eric Chavez. They've combined to hit 34 home runs this season, including six in September.
If Girardi needs a right-handed hitter with power, he can turn to either Casey McGehee or Andruw Jones. Neither of them has done much lately, but both of them are good fits for Oriole Park's short left-field porch.
If Girardi needs a stolen base in a pinch, he now has Brett Gardner to call on. He only has two steals this season thanks to his lengthy injury absence, but he still has the speed to swipe a bag if need be. He can also be used as a late-inning defensive replacement out in left field.
Another defensive replacement Girardi can call on is Chris Dickerson, who is capable of playing all three outfield spots. He can also hit a little bit, as he's posted a 1.207 OPS in limited action this season.
The bad news is that versatile infielder Jayson Nix is out for the foreseeable future with a hip problem, which means that Eduardo Nunez is Girardi's primary backup infielder by default. He has good tools, but he can be erratic in the field.
Even still, Girardi has a deep bench to work with. He'll make good use of it if he has to on Thursday in Baltimore.
What Buck Showalter Has to Play With
Girardi has a little bit of everything on his bench. Fortunately for the Orioles, so does Buck Showalter.
In the last week or so, Jim Thome has emerged as a major asset for Showalter to bring off the bench. In his last seven games, Thome has compiled a 1.031 OPS with a homer, two doubles and four RBI. If Showalter needs a homer late in the game, he won't hesitate to turn to Thome if he's on the bench.
Another bench player who has provided good value for Showalter is Endy Chavez. He can play all three outfield spots, and he still has enough speed to get around the bases if the O's need to manufacture a run.
Baltimore's bench also includes Ryan Flaherty, who can play pretty much every position on the field. He's also shown off some power this season, especially lately. Flaherty has slugged two home runs in the last week.
Steve Tolleson is another guy Showalter can play all over. While he doesn't hit much, he plays good defense regardless of what position he's playing at a given moment (see his FanGraphs metrics).
And then there's Lew Ford. He doesn't play or hit all that much, but he has a solid .769 OPS against the Yankees this season. Showalter won't hesitate to use him against the Bombers.
Showalter won't hesitate to use anybody, for that matter. On his ship, everyone plays. More often than not, everyone contributes, too.
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Why Girardi Will Lead the Yankees to Victory
Right off the bat, everyone should realize that Girardi wouldn't have to do much to get the Yankees ready to play a playoff game for the AL East on Thursday if one is needed.
It would technically be uncharted territory for the Yankees, to be sure, but a Yankees team unfamiliar with high-pressure games has been an alien concept for about 100 years. This Yankees team is not an exception to the rule.
To make matters even easier for Girardi, he's going to be able to rely on a starting pitcher in Andy Pettitte, who has been there and done that about a million times before throughout his career. A good guess would be that Girardi will be able to get five or six good innings out of Pettitte before turning the game over to his bullpen.
If it comes to that, the Yankees will be OK. Their bullpen has been iffy lately, but Girardi knows how to manipulate things to his liking until he can insert Rafael Soriano into the game. In the event that Soriano is needed a little early, Girardi won't be afraid to insert him to get four outs. Maybe even five.
If the game is tied or close in the late innings, Girardi can play small ball by using Brett Gardner as a pinch-runner. He could also choose to play for a home run by using the various power hitters he's going to have on his bench.
If the Yankees lose to the Orioles on Thursday, it won't be because Girardi and the Yankees were ill-prepared.
Why Showalter Will Lead the Orioles to Victory
Leading the Orioles to victory is something Showalter has done better than anybody figured he would this season. It stands to reason he'll be able to handle one more game if need be.
It would be one thing to say that Showalter is not afraid to play the matchups in a given game, but I don't think that really does his approach proper justice. It's more appropriate to say that he's just not afraid to trust his guys regardless of the situation. The Orioles have their stars, but it often feels like they don't have any scrubs. Everyone chips in.
To this end, Showalter won't change his approach on Thursday if a game is needed. He also won't change his approach with his bullpen, which has been about as perfect as anybody could have possibly asked.
It helps that Showalter has some excellent relievers to call on, but Baltimore's bullpen doesn't get to 32 wins and 54 saves throughout the course of the season unless Showalter is good at knowing which numbers to call. His handling of his bullpen has been nothing short of masterful.
Girardi doesn't get enough credit for the job he does managing the high-priced Yankees, but he won't be the better manager on the field on Thursday. At the very least, he and Showalter will be equals.
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A matchup between the Yankees and Orioles on Thursday at Camden Yards would be the ultimate old guard vs. new guard showdown. You'd have the tried-and-true Yankees on one side, and the upstart Orioles on the other.
And if it comes to it, I'd take the Orioles to win.
At this point in time, the Orioles are a better offensive team than the Yankees. They're not as banged up as the Yankees are, and they have considerably more power. I'd anticipate them being able to get at least a couple balls in the air against Andy Pettitte, with a couple of them going over the fence.
If so, the Orioles would have to take what they could get from their starter before turning the game over to their bullpen. Baltimore's bullpen has covered a ton of innings this season, but it's still going strong. A lot stronger, I'll wager, than New York's bullpen.
And of course, the Orioles would have the 10th man going for them. Oriole Park will be stuffed to the gills on Thursday if a game is needed, and the word from Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com is that the Orioles have already gone out of their way to ensure that the fans in attendance will be decked out in orange.
The AL East has been the property of the Yankees for a long time, but 2012 is the year of the Oriole.
Prediction: Orioles 7, Yankees 6