In a postseason clash that everyone predicted before the season started, the New York Yankees travel down to Maryland to take on the Baltimore Orioles for Game 1 on Sunday afternoon.
The Yankees are in a spot that we expected them to be. They won the American League East for the third straight year, winning at least 95 games for the fourth consecutive year.
The Orioles might be the greatest mystery in baseball right now. Sure, there is some talent on the roster, but overall, no one saw 93 wins and a victory over the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers for the franchise's first playoff win since 1997 in store for them this season.
Yet here we are, as the American League East rivalry gets renewed one more time in 2012. It seems only fitting that it would come down to a best-of-five series to settle things for these two teams this year, as they split 18 regular-season games.
So what should we expect from the Yankees in their first playoff game this year? Are the Orioles still riding high after that victory over Texas? What will decide Game 1 of this series?
Here are our predictions for what to expect from Game 1 of the American League Division Series between the Yankees and Orioles.
CC Sabathia's Postseason Demons Won't Show Up
Aside from a brilliant playoff performance in 2009, Sabathia has, for whatever reason, had issues in October. His career numbers look like that of a back-end starter who should be fighting for a rotation spot—4.81 ERA, 93 hits, 46 walks, 12 home runs allowed in 86 innings.
Given the lack of depth in the Yankees' rotation heading into the postseason, they need Sabathia to be on top of his game whenever he steps on the mound. Yankees' starters finished sixth in the American League with a 4.05 ERA this season.
Sabathia has been up and down this year, battling injuries and fatigue. His 3.38 ERA was his worst for a full season since 2005 with Cleveland. His 200 innings, while a good total for any pitcher, were the fewest he has thrown since 2006.
However, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. For starters, Sabathia is completely healthy now, and it has shown in his performance. Since July 17, he has made 13 starts, going at least six innings and allowing more than three earned runs twice.
The Orioles have gotten to him in the three games they played against Sabathia this season, scoring 13 runs on 24 hits in 18.1 innings. That is a very small sample size, so it is hard to say they have his number.
Even though these two teams know each other very well, I always give the advantage to the dominant starter in these kinds of games. Sabathia has earned that trust over the years. I would expect a line of 7 IP, 7 Hits Allowed, 3 ER, 1 BB, 9 K.
The Orioles Will Have To Go To The Bullpen Early
The Orioles will counter Sabathia with Jason Hammel, who was very good in the first half of the season but has only thrown 11.2 innings in the second half due to knee problems.
Hammel hasn't started a game since leaving a start on September 11 against Tampa Bay after 3.2 innings. Three weeks of rest is going to do one of two things to him in this game: Make him so fresh that he pitches one of the best games of his life, or leave him rusty to the point the Yankees can tee-off on him.
Given the power up and down the Yankees lineup, it is much easier to bet on the latter. We have no idea what Hammel is going to give the Orioles. But whenever a pitcher has knee problems, it can alter the way they deliver the ball.
Perhaps Hammel doesn't get the same push off the mound with his right knee that he usually does, putting more strain on his shoulder and not getting the same movement and/or velocity on his pitches.
I understand the decision to go with Hammel, because when he has been on this season, he was the best starter the Orioles had. But I don't like him in this particular setting against this lineup.
So How Does It End?
The first playoff game that Camden Yards has seen since Game 6 of the 1997 American League Championship Series will not be the triumph the fans are hoping for. It doesn't mean that hope is lost for the rest of the series, but the pitching matchup is a decided advantage for the Yankees.
The one saving grace for the Orioles is that their bullpen has been so good at keeping games close that even if Hammel struggles, Buck Showalter can get him early and hope the relievers can limit the damage. That will put more pressure on Game 2 starter Wei-Yin Chen if it happens, because eventually relievers do run out of gas.
Yankees 7, Orioles 3