The Yankees and Orioles meet in Baltimore tonight for the sixth and final time this season. The Baltimore Buck Showalters surprised the Yankees in taking two of three last week and were on the cusp of sweeping the Bombers at home for the first time in 24 years if not for a heroic walk-off home run from Nick Swisher. The Yankees have mostly had their way with the O's this season, having gone 11-4, though they are only 1-2 since Showalter took over.
Additionally, Brian Matusz's dominating performance on Labor Day prompted not one but three different posts taking a look at how the Yankees have fared against soft-tossing starting pitchers and the overall depth of the starting pitching in the AL East to try to make some sense of why the team has seemingly had so much trouble with pitchers of his ilk. The short of it is, they actually haven't had that much trouble with soft-throwers in general, it's just that Matusz is really, really good.
Which makes Showalter's apparent decision to not throw Matusz this weekend against the Yankees rather baffling, and represents a pretty big break for the Bombers, considering Matusz has tossed to a 2.98 ERA over 24 2/3 against New York this season. I understand they're being cautious with Matusz after he took a combacker off the arm, but while trying to predict the probable pitchers before they were actually posted I thought for sure Matusz would be pitching on either Saturday or Sunday, as the former would represent a start on normal rest while the latter obviously would've been five-days' rest. But no, Buck is apparently content to go to war with Kevin Millwood and Chris Tillman -- particularly confusing given that the Yankees beat Millwood up but good the last couple of times they faced him. I guess Buck is counting on the Yankees having one of their patented "we-should-really-be-beating-the-heck-out-of-[Insert Mediocre Starter]-but-instead-will-completely-forget-how-to-play-baseball" games.
The O's have continued to play well since leaving Yankee Stadium, having gone 5-1 during the past week and averaging 5.2 runs per game in that insanely small sample. The Yankees of course have been slumping during that same period, going through a pretty gut-wrenching 1-5 stretch against two potential playoff opponents in the Rangers and Rays while averaging 3.8 runs per game. Aside from providing some background, none of this means anything in relation to this series, although it's worth noting that a lot of the Orioles' success under Buck Showalter -- in addition to improved outings from the starting pitchers -- likely has something to do with the return of perpetual thorn-in-the-Yankees'-side Brian Roberts, who has hit .298/.368/.433 since coming back July 23, and .309/.384/.454 over the last month.
However, despite the Orioles' improved play of late and the fact that they administered a surprise hurting to the Yankees last week, this time around the pitching match-ups should pretty heavily favor the Yankees, as -- in addition to Buck's surprise rotation -- Andy Pettitte will be making his much-awaited return to the Majors on Sunday, two months and one day after succumbing to a groin injury. This weekend will mark the first time their 2009 postseason trio gets to pitch three games in succession since that fateful weekend Pettitte went down. The Yankees have gone 30-24 in Pettitte's absence, so yes, it's nice to have you back, Andy.
In the first game, A.J. Burnett (5.13 ERA; 4.60 FIP; 4.60 xFIP) takes on Kevin Millwood (5.30 ERA; 4.91 FIP; 4.70 xFIP). The A.J. Burnett redemption tour continues, as the righthander's been OK in his last three outings, though far from excellent. Last week against the O's he allowed four earned runs over seven innings, and he'll need to improve on that this time out. Millwood pitched reasonably well against the Yankees the first time he saw them this season, but they lit him up for six earned runs over 5 2/3 innings in each of the last two games they saw him. Millwood's been a touch better over the last 30 days (3.48 ERA; 4.40 FIP) than his season numbers, but there's no reason why the Yankees shouldn't be able to hit him hard.
In the middle game CC Sabathia (3.03 ERA; 3.56 FIP; 3.81 xFIP) faces erstwhile Baltimore ace Jeremy Guthrie (3.74 ERA; 4.39 FIP; 4.89 xFIP). Like Millwood, Guthrie's also been better since Buck's arrival, putting up a 3.16 ERA and 3.61 FIP during the last 30 days. The Yankees didn't have a ton of trouble with Guthrie earlier in the season (getting him for 6 runs in 4 2/3 IP on April 28 and four runs in 7 IP on May 3), but he's still a very good pitcher who is certainly capable of shutting the Yankees down, having done so before. Thankfully the Yankees counter with Sabathia, on the heels of his best start of the season. It's hard to envision Sabathia giving up 5 earned runs to the Orioles again, and he's been his usual fantastic self during the last 30 days (2.55 ERA; 3.43 FIP) -- given that he's also been the Yankees' only reliable starter in the second half, it would be pretty disappointing if they can't win this game. Also, as a side bonus, a win for CC would finally get him to 20.
And in his much-awaited return, Andy Pettitte (2.88 ERA; 3.95 FIP; 4.04 xFIP) is finally back to face Chris Tillman (6.32 ERA; 5.63 FIP; 5.39 xFIP) in the finale. Pettitte of course was in the midst of perhaps the finest season of his 16-year career when he went down in July. It's actually quite thrilling to even be talking about him in this Series Preview -- something I haven't been able to do since the All-Star Break -- as earlier this season after analyzing upcoming Pettitte starts it seemed like Andy delivered on my prediction of a solid outing and/or win every single time. Tillman's also pitched better than his season numbers since Buck's arrival, although he has an insane +3.18 gap between his ERA and FIP during the last 30 days, which a patient and powerful team like the Yankees should be able to expose the heck out of. Even with Andy limited to 90 pitches in this one, the Bombers need to find a way to beat a low-end starter like Tillman.
Here are the two teams' offense and pitching numbers:
And here are some select offense and pitching numbers over the last 30 days:
Despite the Orioles' improved play over the last month, the Yankees absolutely have to take two of three in this series. There's no messing around here. I can abide a rough stretch, and I can understand the sweep to Texas and dropping two of three to Tampa on the road, but anything less than two of three this weekend would really be unacceptable, especially since the Yankees don't have to face Matusz or Jake Arrieta in this series.
If this team wants to go anywhere in the postseason, they're going to have to start playing like a squad that deserves to be there. I've certainly tried to rationalize some of the lackluster play with the injury excuse myself, but they have enough healthy bats that they have to be able to overcome a lesser Oriole pitching staff in spite of the likes of Austin Kearns and Colin Curtis. No better time than now.