5 Biggest Keys for New York Yankees vs. Baltimore Orioles in ALDS

Christopher Connors@twitter.com/Chris_Connors42Correspondent IOctober 7, 2012

5 Biggest Keys for New York Yankees vs. Baltimore Orioles in ALDS

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    In a season where the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles were fit to be tied in head-to-head competition, it's a good thing there's a postseason set up to show who is the best team after all. Baltimore and New York split 18 games this season and were neck-and-neck in the standings through September.

    Starting tonight at Camden Yards, the Orioles and Yankees square off for what promises to be a thrilling best-of-five divisional series matchup between two of the most powerful teams in baseball.

    The clubs meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1996, when a local kid by the name of Jeffrey Maier may have forever altered the course of Yankees' history.

    The final regular season series of the season, for each team, allowed the Yankees some breathing room when they clinched the AL East division title.

    The Yankees and Orioles are very similar teams in certain respects, though one striking difference is the experience factor, an advantage the Yankees decidedly have.

    The Bronx Bombers and "Bashing Birds" finished 1-2 in the majors in home runs. Each team has quality—but not great starting pitching and very strong late-inning bullpens. The Yankees and Orioles have speedy, powerful centerfielders and several veteran sluggers that can go yard from either side of the plate.

    Yet very few teams in baseball have the championship pedigree and veteran experience that the Yankees do, and the Orioles are no exception. That was good enough for the Yankees to hold Baltimore off down the stretch, and it may make the difference in this series.

    The fact is, Baltimore doesn't have a starter quite like CC Sabathia, and they don't have anyone with a semblance of the big-game chops and savvy of Andy Pettitte. Even Hiroki Kuroda, on paper, is likely a better starter than any pitcher on Baltimore. He won't start until Game 3 for New York.

    The Orioles, however, have played with a determination and momentum that few teams have matched over the last several months. They've stumped the sabermetricians with their paltry plus-7 run differential, lack of superstar players and seemingly mediocre starting pitchers.

    In professional sports, winning is the name of the game, and style points are for the the top play highlight reels. As the famous Oakland Raiders' owner Al Davis once said, "Just win baby."

    What has not been easily identifiable to those watching on television or looking at the box scores each night is the particular verve and vibe that this Orioles team has going. Sitting in the stands at Oriole Park in early September, during a heated four-game series with the Yankees, you could sense a feeling in the air.

    A feeling that only seems evident with winning teams on the verge of something special. Maybe not this year but maybe the building of something. Just like the Wild Card 1995 New York Yankees.

    The Yankees will walk into a lion's den tomorrow evening, albeit one that they're very familiar with and where they're quite comfortable playing. New York finished 6-3 at Camden Yards this season—results right in line with their performance there in recent years—and it's no surprise, since the ballpark suits their powerful home run style. 

    The long ball, like quality starting pitching, are among the biggest keys in this ALDS for the Yankees. The Yankees may also benefit from facing Jason Hammel in Game 1, a pitcher who hasn't taken the mound in nearly a month. 

    In the end, experience, as well as the Yankee pitchers' ability to keep Baltimore in the yard, and of course, the Bombers' timely hitting with men on base, should go a long way toward deciding which club advances to the ALCS.

    Here are the five most important keys for the Yankees if they hope to advance to the next round.

1. Hit with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP)

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    It's entirely possible the Yankees may not need to hit with RISP in order to advance to the ALCS. Heck, they were abysmal during the 2012 season batting with RISP. Yet the playoffs are a different beast, and long three-run home runs don't come easy. 

    Ironically enough, the Orioles finished with the exact same team batting average with RISP, but the Yankees got on base this regular season at a much better clip than Baltimore. The Yankees led the AL in on-base percentage.

    If the plethora of postseason experience has taught this Yankees' squad anything, it's that manufacturing runs and continuing to apply pressure with key hit-and-runs, stolen bases and advancing base runners is what makes all the difference in October.

    Oh, and getting a big base hit with runners on second and third base means a lot too.

    The Yankees' heartbreaking loss against Detroit in last year's ALDS had a lot to do with their ineptitude hitting with RISP. The Bombers' pitching staff kept them in most of those games, with the lineup given plenty of chances to knock Detroit out of the playoffs. Over and over again, the mighty Yankees couldn't come through.

    So what will 2012 bring? The Yankees hope a World Series title, and if they are to achieve their 28th championship in franchise history, hitters like Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are going to need to make contact and spray the ball all over the yard for big hits. 

    New York will rely heavily on their stud clean-up hitter—one of the best in all of baseball—Robinson Cano to carry the weight of the lineup and keep mashing and crushing balls all over the yard. Cano's ability to rake like one of the game's greats is vitally important, as was on display over the season's final 10 games.

    But no key to the Yankees' postseason success is more vital than getting the key hits in big spots with men on base. They lacked this potent weapon during the regular season, and manager Joe Girardi can only hope the Bombers' experience and resolve will help change their fortunes starting tonight.

2. CC Sabathia

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    Over CC Sabathia's final three starts of the season, the burly Yankee ace pitched 24 innings, allowing a mere four earned runs and four walks, while striking out 28 batters and earning two victories. That is the CC Sabathia that Yankee fans have grown to love.

    That is precisely the man that is expected to take the hill at 6:07p.m. tonight in Baltimore. Sabathia was signed for times like these, just as was he signed for times like the 2009 World Series run and every single postseason that the Yankees have played in and will play in during his time in the Bronx.

    A $23 million salary requires an ace to be ready, competitive and able to deliver performances that put his team in a position to win the biggest ballgames on the schedule. There is every confidence among Yankees management and in the clubhouse that Sabathia is primed for a deep October run.

    One thing working in his favor is that Sabathia did miss several starts this season due to nagging injuries, which has allowed him to be fresher and stronger to bear the load of some grueling playoff starts. If the Yankees can get multiple postseason starts, more like his previous three, to close out the regular season, they should be in good shape.

    This is his time. This is his moment. CC needs to deliver the Yankees further into October.

3. The Top of the Yankees Lineup's Ability to Set the Table for Big Hitters

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    Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki have formed a top-of-the order Hall of Fame combination that has put significant pressure on opposing pitching staffs over the past two-plus months. Jeter led the majors in hits this season, and Ichiro went on a tear with the Yankees that they only could have dreamed of after acquiring him in late July.

    From ESPN.com, Ichiro's final line in his revival with the Yankees: .322/.340/.454 with five homers and 14 steals in 67 games.

    Ichiro has provided a spark and production to the lineup that had been missing since Brett Gardner's departure due to an elbow injury earlier this season. Jeter continued to make waves in the fountain of youth, defying his age by proving to be once again, the best shortstop in baseball.

    These two classic hitters in their late 30s will go a long way toward positioning the vaunted Yankee lineup for success. Sure, the big bats like A-Rod, Cano and Teixeira must hit in big spots, but they also need to have men on base to knock in the runs. 

    Expect Ichiro to hit toward the top of the lineup against right-handed pitchers, in the two-hole, while Derek Jeter remains in the leadoff spot. The Bombers' expectations are that these two greats will apply the pressure to Jason Hammel & Co. all series long.

4. The Back End of the Yankee Bullpen

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    Perhaps the most amazing subplot of the Yankees' season is that Mariano Rivera's replacement has done such an effective job in replacing him that the Yankees have continued to remain one of the best teams in baseball without missing a beat. 

    When you can replace the greatest relief pitcher of all time and perform similarly to the man himself, that's saying something. Rafael Soriano could hardly be mistaken for the great Mariano, but his results have ended up being immensely respectable and similar in the aggregate.

    Dave Robertson didn't come close to matching his otherworldly season from one year ago, but he's still one of the best setup men in the business. If the Yankees have a close lead after seven innings, it's a virtual certainty that you will see these two men in the game to protect and secure victory for the Bombers.

    Robertson and Soriano should be heavily relied on in this series and must be up to the task if the Yankees hope to advance.

5. Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes as Game 3 and Game 4 Starters

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    For all the talk about the steady, veteran presence and leadership of CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, this series may rest on the strong right arms of Phil Hughes and Hiroki Kuroda.

    Hughes made four starts against Baltimore this season. Here are his lines:

     

    DATE OPPONENT RESULT IP H ER HR BB SO
    7-Sep @ BAL W 8-5 6 6 2 1 0 5
    2-Sep vs BAL L 8-3 5 8 5 2 1 6
    1-Aug vs BAL W 12-3 6 9 1 0 2 2
    1-May vs BAL L 7-1 5.2 4 4 2 1 6

     

    Hiroki Kuroda made two starts against Baltimore this season. Here are his lines:

    DATE OPPONENT RESULT IP H ER HR BB SO
    31-Aug vs BAL L 6-1 8.1 8 4 2 0 4
    30-Apr vs BAL W 2-1 7 4 1 0 1 3
     





     

    Hiroki Kuroda was one of the best pitchers in the American League this season, and the statistics reflect his performance. In fact, Kuroda was the Yankees' best starting pitcher over the balance of the 2012 season, which makes his appearance in Game 3 somewhat puzzling.

    It's important to keep in mind just how highly regarded the postseason experience of Sabathia and Pettitte is, as well as their performance under duress. Kuroda is not untested in the postseason but has made only three starts, two coming in 2008 with Los Angeles and one coming the following year.

    Hiroki Kuroda is also a much different pitcher at home this season than he has been on the road, and the same can be said for Phil Hughes, who won 11 games at home and pitched under a 4.00 ERA, despite surrendering 22 home runs at Yankee Stadium.

    For all the lambasting and cries of inconsistency that Hughes took from the media and fans this season, he still had a very credible season for a back-end-of-the-rotation starter and is a huge reason why the Yankees are where they are.

    Both pitchers are more comfortable at home, and each is capable of a quality performance. Kuroda finished tied for eighth in the AL in quality starts with 20, and Hughes wasn't far behind him with 17 quality starts. 

    If both pitchers can minimize the long ball and continue to work the strike zone effectively, the Yankees will be well positioned to advance to the next round. Kuroda and Hughes are also strikeout pitchers who can really take over a game when they have their best stuff.

    Two games. The promise for more. Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes are two very different pitchers at very different stages of their careers, but each have the assignment to pitch quality home starts for the Yankees—in back-to-back games—at the biggest time of the year.

6. Series Prediction

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    Two powerful teams, each with home run-friendly parks and solid bullpens, take the battlefield one last time to decide who really is the best AL East team after all in 2012. My prediction is Yankees in five games, largely because their starting rotation has the edge.

    You cannot discount home field advantage and, most importantly, experience at this time of the year. The Yankees have been there before, and this may be their last great run, when you consider the age of players like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira. 

    The Yankees will seize the moment and realize that this season isn't ready to end yet, winning a thrilling ALDS with a wild comeback victory in Game 5.