The Oakland A's and the Detroit Tigers know they're playing one another in the American League Division Series starting on Saturday. The Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers know they're playing each other in the American League Wild Card game, which will go down Friday night in Arlington.
The New York Yankees have no clue who they'll be playing when they begin their postseason run on Sunday. For that matter, they don't even know where they'll begin their postseason run. These things depend entirely on Friday's matchup between the Orioles and Rangers.
If the Rangers win, they'll await the Yankees' arrival for Game 1 of the ALDS on Sunday. If the Orioles win, they'll head home to Baltimore and wait for the Yankees to come on down.
If you ask the Yankees straight up who they'd rather face in the ALDS, you won't get a straight answer. Choosing sides wouldn't be the best PR move for a variety of reasons.
I suppose we have no choice but to choose sides for them, so here goes.
If I'm the Yankees, I'd much rather face the Rangers in the ALDS than the Orioles.
I never imagined before the start of the 2012 season that I would ever say that, but there are several very good reasons why the Yankees should be rooting for the Rangers to beat the Orioles on Friday night.
The Yankees Know the Orioles Are Dangerous
A quick look at the Yankees' schedule will reveal that their season series against the Orioles wasn't a complete disaster. The two teams split it right down the middle, winning nine games apiece.
A closer look will reveal that the Orioles gave the Yankees everything they could handle.
Want to know how many series the Yankees won from the Orioles this year? Exactly one, and it was a sweep that happened way back in early April. In every other series the Yankees played against the Orioles this season, they either got beat or managed merely to split.
In the second half of the season, the Orioles traveled to The Bronx twice and beat the Yankees in their own backyard each time. The last time these two teams hooked up in Baltimore in early September, they split a four-game series that featured plenty of high drama.
Though this is another thing that you won't get the Yankees to admit, they're clearly not a better team than the Orioles. At the very least, the two clubs are even. If we're being honest, the Orioles looked like the better team in the second half of the season.
What the Yankees probably will admit is that the scariest part about the Orioles is how powerful their bats are, particularly when said bats are being put to use against pinstriped pitchers.
Orioles hitters slugged .484 against the Yankees this season, their third-highest slugging percentage against any one team. They clubbed 30 home runs against the Bombers, their second-most against any one team. They hit more homers against the Yankees than they did against the woeful Boston Red Sox, which says a lot.
Mark Reynolds led the way with seven homers against the Yankees, and all seven of those homers came after August 30. J.J. Hardy touched the Yankees up for six home runs. Matt Wieters hit four against them. Adam Jones and Chris Davis each hit three.
Baltimore's biggest power outburst against the Yankees came on September 6, when they clubbed six home runs in a dramatic 10-6 victory. Half of those homers came in the bottom of the eighth inning after the Orioles had just saw the Yankees tie the game up with a big rally in the top of the inning.
If the Yankees can help it, they'd rather not have to see these bats again. They've done enough damage against them.
On the flip side, it's true that Baltimore's pitchers have been pretty "meh" against the Yankees, posting a 4.69 ERA in 18 games against them. However, the important part is that Baltimore's studly bullpen has been, well, pretty studly against the Yankees. Darren O'Day, Luis Ayala and Jim Johnson all boast ERAs under 3.00 against the Yankees, and all three of them promise to see plenty of action if the Orioles happen to come up against the Yankees in the ALDS.
The matchup itself would be bad enough. Exacerbating matters is the fact that the O's posted better records in both August and September than the Yankees did. They're playing good baseball at a time when everyone thought they would be playing bad baseball.
Now, the Rangers, on the other hand...
The Yankees Know the Rangers Aren't So Dangerous
After what happened to them this week in Oakland, we can't help but ask just what in the world has happened to the Rangers.
It's a good question. The Rangers looked like they were clearly the team to beat in the American League earlier in the season, and they managed to keep winning games in the middle of the season even despite some trouble with their pitching and an epically bad slump on the part of Josh Hamilton.
Recently, however, the Rangers have taken to looking like a second-rate bush league team (ultimate baseball insult?).
The Rangers capped off their season by losing seven of their last nine games, fumbling away a five-game lead in the division in the process. By the time they got to Oakland for their showdown with the A's this week, they looked like a team ripe for a beating.
And man did they get a beating. The A's held them to a total of four runs in the first two games of the series, the second of which was started by the immortal Travis Blackley. He outdueled 18-game winner Matt Harrison, and he made it look easy.
And then came Wednesday's debacle. It started well enough, with the Rangers taking a 5-1 lead into the fourth inning thanks to a productive third, but then they allowed the A's to score 11 unanswered runs. Four of those were unearned runs thanks to a pair of errors, the most crippling of which was Hamilton's misplay of a can-of-corn fly ball with two outs in the fourth inning that allowed the A's to take a 7-5 lead.
If you zoom out and take a look at the Rangers' numbers since the All-Star break, their collapse at the end makes a lot of sense. The Rangers led the AL in runs scored and batting average before the break, and went on to finish fourth in runs and fifth in average in the second half. They posted a solid 3.72 ERA in the first half, and a not-so-solid 4.29 ERA in the second half.
It all points to a major regression, and the eye test confirms that a regression did indeed take place. These Rangers don't look like the Rangers of 2010 or 2011. They look like impostors.
And, honestly, maybe they always were. Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News pointed out something I thought was fascinating, and that's how the Rangers' schedule broke down in the end. They went 13-3 in their first 16 games, 14-4 in interleague play, and 66-62 in all other games.
Since they have a pretty clear pitching edge in Friday night's game with Yu Darvish going up against Joe Saunders, the Rangers could move on to face the Yankees in the ALDS. In fact, I'll even give them the edge.
If the Rangers do move on, though, they'll be moving on to face a Yankees team that won the season series from them, four games to three. The killer blow was a victory in a four-game series in The Bronx in August in which the Yankees beat up the Rangers in pretty much every way possible.
The Yankees match up well against the Rangers, and they have to be intrigued by how the Rangers look like a fading superpower that isn't that into it anymore.
The Orioles are a much different story.
The Yankees Know the Orioles Want to Beat Them
There are no stats to validate anything I'm about to say, so I'll be upfront and admit that everything you're about to read is my own subjective interpretation of the situation.
The Orioles have the look of a team that doesn't really give a damn who they're playing on a daily basis. Most teams have this look this time of year—or claim to have it—and it's partially why you hear so many ballplayers give the old "We don't care who we play" line in interviews.
But I think you know as well as I do that the Orioles place a special emphasis on beating the Yankees when they play them, and that they wouldn't mind it one bit if they got the chance to do so again.
Before this season, the Orioles had been cellar dwellers in the AL East for a long time. When they looked up, they always saw the Yankees up there in the rarefied air. One assumes they heard the sound of laughter coming from above, or at least imagined that they did.
The Orioles are finally on the same level as the Yankees this year. Maybe not in the final standings, mind you, but certainly in terms of talent and, you know, actual winning ability. And from the looks on their faces when they played the Yankees, it was pretty clear that they were enjoying not being the doormat anymore.
Now, before them lies the ultimate rite of passage. If ever there was a way for the Orioles to put an exclamation point on their arrival in the AL East, it's beating the Yankees in the postseason.
Think back to what the Tampa Bay Rays did to the Boston Red Sox in the 2008 ALCS. The Red Sox put up a fight, but the Rays were able to beat them in seven games. And indeed, the hell of it was that it was the Red Sox giving the Rays a fight and not the other way around.
Since then, the Rays have won one division title and made the playoffs twice. The Red Sox made the playoffs as a wild-card team in 2009 and haven't been back since. Nor will they be back for quite a while, I'm guessing.
The Rays effectively knocked the crown off Boston's head in 2008. The Orioles could do the same to the Yankees this year.
And you just know they want to.
The Yankees Know the Rangers Have Had Their Time
Back in 2010, we were measuring the Rangers against the Yankees. The Rangers were the rising power in the American League, but they wouldn't be there yet until they knocked off the old-guard power in the Yankees, who had just won the World Series the year before.
The Rangers ultimately passed the test, knocking the Yankees out of the 2010 postseason with a four-games-to-two victory in the ALCS. That put the Rangers in their first World Series, and it knocked the Yankees from their perch atop the American League.
In 2011, the script was flipped. Instead of measuring the Rangers against the Yankees, we took to measuring the Yankees against the Rangers. The question wasn't whether the Rangers could beat the Yankees, but whether the Yankees could beat the Rangers.
The Yankees ultimately weren't even good enough to give it a shot, bowing out of the postseason by virtue of a defeat at the hands of the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS. They watched from home as the Rangers went back to the World Series, and ultimately came one strike away from winning it (twice).
Now here we are asking our questions again, and the script has been flipped again. This year, it's whether the Rangers can beat the Yankees.
Mind you, the script was flipped very recently. Heck, it may not have been flipped until Wednesday, when the Rangers completed their season-ending slide. The balance of power between the American League's two superpowers has shifted pretty abruptly.
This goes to show just how much the shine has worn off the Rangers over the last few days/weeks/months. They're not as dangerous as they were before, and part of the reason they're not so dangerous anymore is because they don't look dangerous.
These days, the Yankees are looking like a team with a renewed sense of purpose.
The Rangers look like a team that is just going through the motions. The fact that they weren't able to turn their jets back on again to save their grasp on the AL West may be a sign that their jets are out of commission for good. Maybe they're out of gas, which would make sense given the amount of baseball the Rangers have played over the last three years.
The Yankees would much rather face a team like that than a team like the Orioles, who are playing their best baseball in years and are also out for pinstriped blood. The Orioles want to win, whereas the Rangers have the look of a team that simply expects to win because winning has been their life for several years now.
You might say one of two possible tasks like ahead of the Yankees. They can either give the Orioles a reality check, or they can put the Rangers out of their misery.
Option A would be better theater, but Option B is the easier route.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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