By Sweeny Murti
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*You didn’t think this was going to be a walk-through series for the Yankees, did you? These two teams played to a 9-9 deadlock and were separated by just two runs after 18 regular season meetings. Stop asking if the Orioles are for real. That’s why they are here, because they are for real. This has been a good fight, even after just two games. Yanks still have the advantage as they head home for last two (or three).
*That was a big win for the Orioles in Game 2 for one big reason—Jim Johnson bounced back with a dominating ninth inning. It had less to do with his own confidence, I think, than the Yankees’ own. They got to him in Game 1, and that gave them confidence going forward. It was Baltimore’s biggest advantage coming into the series, and it was dented after Game 1. Johnson took it back in Game 2. As Derek Jeter said, “You don’t like to face him when you’re behind.”
*The burden will soon fall to Rafael Soriano, who has yet to pitch in this series. The Yankees will ask him to close a game soon, and it will be a big test. Despite his impressive season filling in for Mariano Rivera, the fact remains that this is October, when Rivera got better. Untuck as many times as you want in the regular season. It gets a little harder in the postseason.
*Hiroki Kuroda holds the key for the Yankees in Game 3. He could have lined up as the Yanks’ Game 2 starter, based not only on how he pitched this year, but also based on his ability to split up left-handers CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte. You could point to his home-road splits as a reason to start him in Game 3 (11-6, 2.72 ERA at Yankee Stadium; 5-5, 4.23 ERA away from the Bronx). However, Joe Girardi indicated the main factor in holding back Kuroda ’til Game 3 was the workload he had already endured this season—a career-high 219.2 innings. That’s career-high including his Japanese career. At age 37, Kuroda has thrown more innings than any other year in his career, with a career total of more than 2,600 innings. Girardi decided Kuroda could use the extra rest, which he now gets as he starts Game 3 on six days rest.
*Phil Hughes will be a big key as well when he starts Game 4. The days of riding your ace in Games 1 and 4 appear long gone, so the importance of rotation depth increases. Hughes has taken a lot of grief from Yankee fans for his inconsistency, but by definition that makes him a No. 4 starter. And if you ask folks around the league, which I have, he is a pretty good one at that. Yes, he gave up 35 home runs (tied for second-most in all of MLB). But, even in homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, Hughes was 11-4, 3.74 ERA this year. And his walk ratio of 2.16 per 9 innings was the eighth-lowest in the AL. In the course of a 16-13 regular season he pitched some of his best games against Detroit, Oakland, and Baltimore—yes, all three remaining playoff teams. Hughes has the ability to pitch a good game Thursday night. The Yanks will need it. It could be the key to their October survival.
*Alex Rodriguez has the target on his back again. It’s only two games, but 1-for-9 with five strikeouts isn’t getting it done. And some singles and walks in front of Robinson Cano are not why he’s batting third. A-Rod has not hit a home run in the postseason since the 2009 World Series. That has to change.
*Adam Jones and Matt Wieters have struggled too. Including the wild card game at Texas, they are a combined 2-for-23 in the postseason. How much grief would they be taking if they played for the Yankees?
*All those people who railed at me all year that “Sabathia is not an ace!” were very quiet during and after Game 1. Watching him work in the eighth inning after giving up the leadoff double to J.J. Hardy, you saw what an ace does. He set down Jones, Wieters, and Mark Reynolds in order and set the Yankees offense up to go after Jim Johnson in a tie game, rather than a save situation. He wasn’t his best at times in the regular season. But down the stretch and in Game 1, he was exactly what the Yankees paid for.
*The Yankees used their speed and other skills to get their two runs in Game 2—Ichiro Suzuki’s race home and impossible-to-describe slide in the first inning, and Eduardo Nunez turning a blooper in the seventh inning into a double before scoring on Derek Jeter’s clutch single. Joe Girardi said before this series that the Yankees could win not just with home runs because players like Ichiro and Nunez have added another dimension. While we saw that in Game 2, you know what this team also could have used? One of those evil home runs.
*As much time and energy as we’ve spent destroying the umpires all season long, and into the postseason, fair is fair. Angel Hernandez made a terrific call on that Ichiro slide (which, with some help from David Wells on Twitter, I have dubbed “The Ichi Shuffle”). Wieters clearly missed Ichiro on both tag attempts. Hernandez was in position, saw it and called it correctly.
*Brett Gardner has not been a factor, but could have been one in Game 2 if a different pitcher had been in the game. After Mark Teixeira’s leadoff single in the eighth, pinch-running for the still less-than-100-percent Teixeira made some sense. However, Girardi saw little chance to steal second base against the lefty Brian Matusz so he kept Teixeira in the game. If it was a different pitcher, or if Teixeira had been on second base instead, it is likely that Gardner would have been in to run and give the Yanks a chance to score the tying run.
*I know you’re feeling the anxiety during these games. It’s okay. That’s what you’re supposed to feel. It’s October baseball. Every pitch matters and it hurts your stomach. If you can’t take it, watch something else.
*And remember — this train carries losers AND winners. Meet me in a land of hope and dreams.
“The Voice of Reason” strikes again. Are you with Sweeny on all points? Be heard in the comments below!