By Neil Keefe
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I went to Yankee Stadium on Thursday with the intention of seeing a pitching duel between CC Sabathia and David Price with the AL East on the line. By the ninth inning, I was listening to a guy sitting right underneath the press box yell and moan after spending his paycheck on drinks for three hours and watching the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees take on the Tampa Bay Rays. But hey, John Sterling would tell me “you can’t predict baseball.”

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Nothing is more important than starting pitching. It’s what made me go out to the Stadium last night to see what I thought would be an ALCS Game 1 preview. It’s why Joba Chamberlain wanted to remain a starting pitcher and why I thought he should stay one. It’s where the money and glamour is. It’s where you can get a five-year deal for $82.5 million and go out and lose 14 games for a first place team and smash your hands on a lineup card holder and also get a mysterious black eye and not have to tell anyone about it. Could a reliever get away with those things? Probably not. Then again, I don’t think a reliever has tried to do those things, so it’s debatable. Starting pitchers have it better because they are more valuable, and in the postseason they are more valuable than anything.

An untouchable 1-2 punch in the postseason can take you to the promised land (2001 Diamondbacks), but a solid 1-2-3 rotation can get the same results (2009 Yankees). Notice how no media outlet is comparing starting lineups for the postseason and no one is arguing about which team has the best offense. It’s all starting pitching all the time and rightfully so.

The playoffs are now under two weeks away and with the Yankees, Rays, Twins and Rangers on their way to the second season, it’s time to decide who has the advantage in starting pitching. And what better way to sort out the top three starters on each AL team than to rank them?

12. James Shields
That’s right, I’m telling you there is someone worse than A.J. Burnett that will be given a postseason start this fall. If A.J. Burnett is Example A of a pitcher with “great stuff” that doesn’t really have “great stuff,” then James Shields is Example B. Earlier in the season, I made an All-Animosity Team and I included only one starter which was Josh Beckett. But had I made an entire All-Animosity pitching staff, James Shields would have certainly been in the rotation.

He goes by the nickname “Big Game James,” despite his 56-49 career record and 2-2 postseason record. He did win his only World Series start in 2008, but he tried to let the Red Sox get back to the World Series that year by going 0-2 in the ALCS.

I’m not even sure if James Shields is going to be Joe Maddon’s Game 3 starter, but I would have to think he is. Joe Maddon might be crazy enough to back up Carl Crawford’s decision to tag and go to third base against the Yankees and crazy enough to think those black-rimmed glasses look good, but I don’t think he is crazy enough to let Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis start a playoff game over Shields. No matter how bad Shields is, he does have more experience than those two.

11. A.J. Burnett
I need to put aside my problems with A.J. Burnett from now through the postseason. So, I am officially on the A.J. Burnett bandwagon from here on out (I think there are some seats left on that wagon).

Why am I doing this? Because I can’t hate a guy that I need to win important games this postseason, that’s why. So aside from the few shots I take at him in these rankings, I am done trying to make A.J. Burnett’s life as miserable as he makes mine when he starts.

10. Colby Lewis
There isn’t much to say about Colby Lewis. He’s pretty good, but with Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson on the Rangers, you look forward to the chance to face Lewis.

If you’re only ahead of Shields and Burnett on this list, then technically you’re last because I am not even sure those two classify as starting pitchers.

9. Brian Duensing
If I had to manage against the Yankees in the playoffs, I would start young lefties that the Yankees haven’t seen before. It’s the ultimate key for success against the Yankees and honestly, it gives you a better chance to win than starting some veteran with great numbers but a lot of appearances against the Yankees.

Last year, I thought that Ron Gardenhire had finally caught onto the formula for success for beating the Yankees when he named Brian Duensing his Game 1 starter for the ALDS against the Yankees. Duensing actually started because of a variety of reasons and problems with the Twins’ rotation, but it sure seemed like old Gardy had finally figured it out.

When the Twins went up 2-0 in the third inning of Game 1, I started thinking thoughts like “Are you kidding me? Another year down the drains” and “Maybe the Yankees will never get out of the ALDS again.” I began thinking CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett were wastes of money. These are all ridiculous things to be thinking when trailing 2-0 in the third inning of Game 1, but when you don’t win for eight years, you will begin thinking ridiculous things (I can’t imagine the ridiculous thoughts that go through the minds of Mets fans). But then Derek Jeter drilled a two-run home run to left in the bottom of the inning, Duensing was pulled in the fifth and everything was OK.

Duensing has all the qualities you want in a guy facing the Yankees: he’s young, he’s rather inexperienced in the majors and he’s a lefty. The only problem is that the Yankees have seen him and beaten him in the postseason, so those qualities aren’t as valuable to him.

8. Carl Pavano
Even when I type his name I still get mad. I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away. I don’t think it will.

Carl Pavano helped beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series. Then he stole $39.95 million from the team that could have been used on a lot of other things. Then he tried to stifle the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS last year. I am beginning to think that he was put on this planet to try and single-handedly bring the Yankees down.

It made me happy that the Yankees were able to beat him to clinch the ALDS last October, and it will only make me that much happier if they have to beat him in Game 2 this season. I just hope he has already used his ill will for the Yankees and doesn’t have a complete-game shutout stored up his sleeves. Because if anyone does, he does.

7. Matt Garza
I am not a Matt Garza fan (I am actually very rarely a fan of any non-Yankee), but he did win Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS and I will forever be grateful of him for that win (The No. 3 pitcher on this list also had a little something to do with that win). But Garza has been so inconsistent this season that I can’t be afraid of him.

Matt Garza is exactly the type of pitcher the Yankees want to see in the postseason: a righty with control issues and obvious emotional issues. Garza can be cruising along in a game and the slightest thing can cause him to meltdown. And like A.J. Burnett, when Garza begins to unravel, there is no stopping him.

He might not have the hard-throwing control issues that someone like Daniel Cabrera used to possess, but he does have a similar makeup. Garza is either going to shut you down for an entire game or walk five in the first two innings and be out of the game in the third inning. I will take my chances against a career 41-43 pitcher with meltdown abilities like that any day of the week.

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6. C.J. Wilson
C.J. Wilson wanted to be a starter entering the 2010 season. The only problem was that the Rangers organization was split on whether or not he should become a starter or remain a reliever. I think it’s safe to say Nolan Ryan should fire the group of people that thought Wilson should remain in the bullpen.

Wilson has grown into one of the best starters in the American League and without him, I just might want the Yankees playing the Rangers in the ALDS. Without Wilson, you are just dealing with Cliff Lee, but with Wilson, you are dealing with two very good lefties, both capable of shutting down the Yankees. Maybe taking the wild card and the Twins in the first round isn’t such a bad idea.

C.J. Wilson might be the best bargain in baseball at just $3.1 million this season. With 14 wins, the Rangers are paying just $221,428 per win from arguably the best No. 2 starter in all of baseball with a 3.15 ERA. The Yankees on the other hand are paying $1.650 million per win from A.J. Burnett. No big deal.

5. Francisco Liriano
If the Twins have Francisco Liriano for the 2006 playoffs, they probably get out of the first round against Oakland, and with Johan Santana, who knows what happens after that?

Liriano is proof that the 1-2 year grace period following Tommy John surgery does exist. His first year back after surgery he was basically a left-handed A.J. Burnett, but over time he has been getting closer and closer to the 22-year-old starter with a 2.16 ERA that he was in 2006 before going down with injury.

He might be the Twins’ ace, but until he is 2006 Liriano, he can’t hang on this list with the elite.

4. Andy Pettitte
If these were the rankings for Bases Loaded And No One Out And You Need To Get Out Of The Jam, I might have Andy Pettitte at No. 1. That is how much I trust him and that is how good he is in a big game.

It’s no secret by now that Pettitte is the wild card for the Yankees. If he is healthy and his usual self then the Yankee Stadium grounds crew might as well paint the World Series logo on the field now and save their time painting the ALDS and ALCS on the way to the Fall Classic. But if Pettitte suffers a setback (knock on wood) or isn’t his usual self (knock on wood again), then I hope the New York Football Giants defense gets it act together because the Yankees won’t be in the postseason for long.

Pettitte might not have the stuff that the Top 3 on this list have, but he knows how to win and he has more postseason wins (18) than anyone in the history of the game.

Last season, Pettitte pitched the clinching game of the AL East, the ALDS clincher, the ALCS clincher and the World Series clincher. It was the perfect opportunity for him to walk away from the game on top with a storybook ending to a brilliant career. But he chose to come back to try to win another championship (that and the $11.75 million). I have to believe that Pettitte isn’t going to go out any other way than as a champion, and if this is his last season, I expect some vintage postseason performances from him this fall.

3. David Price
David Price is an ace, but he isn’t the category that Nos. 1 and 2 are yet, and let’s hope it stays that way. Because if it doesn’t, then that means the Rays either went to the World Series or won the World Series, and that would suck. Like Garza, I thank Price for Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS, but that isn’t good enough to get him in the top tier.

Price scares me because he has had success against the Yankees and he has been in a big spot before and come out on top (Game 7, 2008 ALCS). He isn’t going to get nervous by the bright lights of the postseason and he isn’t going to soil himself on the mound at Yankee Stadium if he has the bases loaded and no one out in the seventh inning with the game on the line.

2. Cliff Lee
If I could sum up Cliff Lee in one picture, it would be this picture. That play is from Game 1 of the World Series. Lee was sitting down Yankees with ease and in the bottom of the sixth, Johnny Damon popped out to Lee.

Lee made the most nonchalant catch in baseball history and I’m not even sure he was looking at the ball. It was the most effortless play I had ever seen, and I kind of understand where Lee is coming from after that catch because the Yankees had basically given an effortless performance to that point, or at least had make it look like they weren’t giving an effort. The catch made it look as though Lee was about to say, “Are you kidding me? This is the World Series, isn’t it? This is what I waited my whole life to pitch in?” That’s how easy Cliff Lee made it look in Game 1.

My dad still talks about the way Lee pitched in Game 1, even going as far as to say, “it was the best pitching performance he has ever seen.” Obviously there is a sarcastic tone to that, but at the same time there is some truth to it. After the bottom of the first when Lee struck out Derek Jeter, got Damon out on a bunt attempt and struck out Mark Teixeira, you just knew the Yankees were in a bad position. The fact that he needed only 11 pitches to get through the top of the order didn’t help.

If Cliff Lee had gone to the Yankees like we all thought he was, then I wouldn’t be worrying about potential matchups with the Twins or Rangers or Rays. But with Lee and Wilson in Texas, you have two nasty lefties that are overqualified to shut down the Yankees down and have already this year. That’s not good. I am not even sure if the Yankees can beat Cliff Lee in the playoffs. Sure they had that comeback win against him earlier this year, but he is Cliff Lee and he was 2-0 against them in the World Series on the biggest stage. Target Field for the ALDS is becoming more and more appealing.

1. CC Sabathia
Some people won’t agree with CC Sabathia being No. 1 here. Those people are likely from Philadelphia. And had Lee’s team won the World Series last year then he would probably be in this spot. And had he been a Yankee he would be in this spot too. But neither of things happened, so I have to go with the Big Fella at No. 1.

When the Yankees first traded for Sabathia I was pleased. But the more I thought about it and the more I was influenced by friends and media coverage, I grew worried then skeptical then scared. That seems kind of nuts now. But at the time, Brian Cashman’s résumé for signing free-agent pitchers had about as much credibility as someone applying to a job with their résumé written in Crayola crayons on a napkin. Over the previous four or five seasons, Cashman had built his pitching staff around pitchers who were on the 1997 All-Star team. The only problem was that 1997 was 10 years ago at this point.

Sabathia became the first free-agent pitcher to make it look like Cashman knows what he is doing when it comes to pitching. Sure, there was Mike Mussina, but I was never a Mussina fan or supporter, but that is a story for another day. Sabathia proved his worth last postseason and he continues to prove it this season as a true “ace” in a day and age where the term is thrown around loosely. And given A.J. Burnett’s contract, you could actually say that at $23 million per season, CC Sabathia is underpaid.

People told me he was going to keep getting bigger and that he would break down because of his immense workloads and what the Brewers put him through, and that he didn’t even want to be in New York anyways and that he really wanted to be home in California. So far he has one ring in one try and a Cy Young-worthy season in his second try. So far, I’d say the CC Sabathia Era has gone according to plan.

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