The Yankees' magic number to clinch a playoff spot is just one, but what they do once they reach the postseason may be decided this week.
New York (95-55) opens with a three-game series at its recent nemesis and AL West leaders, the Los Angeles Angels (89-60), and then returns home for a final three-game set against the arch rival and Wild Card-leading Boston Red Sox (89-59).
The Bombers lead the Sox by only four in the loss column and hold a five-game advantage in the loss column over the Angels.
The Yankees need to finish with the best record in the American League for a number of reasons. First, so they can avoid playing the Angels in the ALDS. Los Angeles eliminated New York in a short series in 2002 and 2005. Playing Detroit, who the Pinstripes are 5-1 against this year, or surging Minnesota (7-0) would be a lot easier.
Secondly, the Yanks need to hold onto home field advantage for the simple reason that they are 52-23 at home and just 43-32 on the road.
And finally, if New York can keep the top seed, it would be able to choose the length of its division series. The Bombers would obviously prefer the longer eight-day series, so that CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett could pitch four of the five games and they could avoid using a fourth starter.
The organization has absolutely destroyed Joba Chamberlain with its innings limits and extra days of rest, so he would be an extremely risky start in the playoffs right now. Using him as the seventh inning guy in the ALDS would be a lot more beneficial to the team and they can worry about the ALCS and World Series a little later. That's why it's so important that the Yankees finish with the best record in the league.
But will they be able to do it? Let's take a look at the pitching matchups for the Angels series.
Monday, Sept. 21 - Andy Pettitte (13-6, 4.14) vs. Joe Saunders (13-7, 4.75)
Pettitte missed his last start due to shoulder fatigue, but is ready to go Monday night against the Angels. The southpaw is 5-0 over his last nine starts and hasn't lost since July 25.
But the 37-year-old hasn't pitched too well versus Los Angeles this season. On May 1, he allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings en route to a no-decision, as the Yankees won, 10-9. On July 11, Pettitte surrendered six runs over 4 1/3 innings and took a 14-8 defeat.
In his career, the lefty is 12-9 with a 4.70 ERA in 27 starts against the Angels and 6-6 with a 4.17 in 15 games at Anaheim.
The current L.A. roster is hitting .321 versus Pettitte, including Erick Aybar (6-for-13), Vladimir Guerrero (8-for-20) and Gary Matthews Jr. (9-for-26, 2 HR). Only Torii Hunter (7-for-30, 11 K) seems to struggle against the veteran.
Saunders is also on a solid winning streak, posting a 4-0 record with a 2.10 ERA over his past five starts.
But also like Pettitte, the Angels left-hander hasn't pitched well in this rivalry in 2009. On July 10, Los Angeles beat New York, 10-6, but Saunders took the no-decision after giving up five runs on nine hits through five innings.
This is nothing new for the 2008 All-Star, who is 1-1 with a 7.97 ERA in four lifetime starts against the Yankees.
New York's roster bats .302 versus Saunders. Alex Rodriguez is 5-for-10 (.500) with three extra-base hits, Derek Jeter is 5-for-11 (.455) and Johnny Damon is 4-for-10 (.400), but Mark Teixeira is just 2-for-12 (.167).
Prediction: Angels 11, Yankees 8
Tuesday, Sept. 22 - Chad Gaudin (5-10, 4.81) vs. Ervin Santana (7-8, 5.43)
Gaudin has replaced Sergio Mitre as the Yankees fifth starter, but if he wants any shot at taking Chamberlain's spot as the team's Game 4 starter, he needs to pitch well against the Angels.
Gaudin is 1-0 with a 3.68 ERA since New York acquired him from San Diego at the beginning of August, including four reasonable starts.
But when he was with the Padres, the right-hander was charged with eight runs and 10 hits over three innings in an 11-6 loss to Los Angeles on June 12. He's 3-3 with a 5.53 ERA in 18 career appearances versus the Angels and 2-2 with an 8.33 mark in Anaheim.
Maicer Izturis is 8-for-18 (.444) when facing Gaudin, Chone Figgins is 4-for-10 (.400) with four walks and Guerrero is 7-for-18 (.389) with three homers and seven RBIs. Hunter is 2-for-10 (.200) and Matthews is 2-for-21 (.095) with four strikeouts.
Santana is 0-2 in his last five starts, but he has recorded a quality start in seven of his past eight outings.
The right-hander hasn't pitched against the Yankees this season, but is 5-2 with a 5.09 ERA in seven career starts versus the Bronx Bombers. He's 1-5 with a 7.24 mark at home in 2009.
New York's roster is hitting just .221 against Santana. Jeter is 9-for-19 (.474), but A-Rod is 4-for-19 (.211) with five strikeouts, Damon is 4-for-20 (.200) with four Ks, Teixeira is 4-for-20 (.200), Robinson Cano is 3-for-17 (.176) and Nick Swisher is 4-for-25 (.160) with an astounding 12 punchouts.
Prediction: Angels 10, Yankees 6
Wednesday, Sept. 23 - A.J. Burnett (11-9, 4.22) vs. Scott Kazmir (9-8, 5.08)
Burnett could be the key to the Yankees' success this October and he gave the organization a reason to be confident in him again with a seven-inning, one-run performance in Seattle on Friday.
The right-hander also had a solid outing against the Angels on April 30, when he allowed four runs in seven innings to pick up the no-decision in a 7-4 New York victory.
Burnett is 1-2 with a 4.63 ERA in five career starts versus Los Angeles and 0-2 with a 4.50 at Angel Stadium.
Bobby Abreu is 20-for-61 (.328) with 10 RBIs but 17 strikeouts against Burnett, but Vlad is 9-for-42 (.214) with 11 Ks, Hunter is 2-for-20 (.100) with seven punchouts and Matthews is 1-for-11 (.091).
Kazmir, meanwhile, is 1-1 with a 1.42 ERA in four starts since being traded from the Rays to the Angels on Aug. 28.
With Tampa Bay this year, he was 2-0 with a 2.63 mark versus New York and is 6-4 with a 2.53 ERA against the Yankees in his career.
Teixeira is 6-for-9 (.667) with three doubles and four walks when facing the lefty, Jorge Posada is 11-for-25 (.440) and Melky Cabrera is 6-for-17 (.353).
But Hideki Matsui is 5-for-26 (.192), Swisher is 5-for-27 (.185) with six Ks, Damon is 6-for-36 (.167) with seven strikeouts, Cano is 3-for-23 (.130) with eight punchouts, A-Rod is 3-for-24 (.125) with seven Ks and Jeter is 4-for-33 with 10 strikeouts.
Prediction: Yankees 4, Angels 3
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Jordan Schwartz is Bleacher Report's New York Yankees Community Leader. His book "Memoirs of the Unaccomplished Man" is available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and authorhouse.com.
Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org