So I may have been a tad premature in declaring last weekend’s Yankees-Red Sox match-up to be meaningless, as Sunday night’s contest wound up being the most nerve-wracking game I’ve consumed all season. Thankfully the Yankees put an end to any last hopes the Sox may have had with regards to sneaking into the playoffs this past Tuesday, and we can all rest easy this weekend with three meaningless games between the two arch-rivals.
Sure, there’s still the little matter of the AL East crown and best record in the AL to settle, but the Yankees have made it clear that their priority is a rested and healthy team come Wednesday, regardless of whether that first game is played at home against Texas or on the road at Target Field.
There’s a slightly interesting wrinkle — with the Rays losing to Zack Greinke last night, the Yankees and Rays once again find themselves tied for first place with identical 94-65 records and three games apiece left to play. However, for the Yankees to win the AL East, they’ll have to win one more game than the Rays do this weekend — finishing with the same record won’t matter, since the Rays hold the tiebreaker (10-8 in the season series). I don’t have particularly high hopes that the Rays will lose two of their last three against the Royals, and so I will be pleasantly surprised if the Yankees do end up finding themselves in first place at the conclusion of the regular season on Sunday. However, I should also add that the Royals taking two of three against the Rays might not be quite as insane as it sounds — in reviewing the data I found that the Royals, much to my surprise, actually have the best wOBA (.343) in the American League over the last 30 days. So who knows, perhaps KC will make a series of it.
The other potential happenings to look for this weekend are whether Robinson Cano and/or Nick Swisher can get to 30 bombs, and if Alex Rodriguez can add any more extra-base hits to his ledger, to ensure he doesn’t finish with the lowest SLG of his Yankee career (he’s currently at .514; he recorded a .512 SLG in 2004). For purely selfish reasons I would also like to see the Yankees maintain their .003-point wOBA lead over the Sox to ensure they record the top wOBA in all of MLB for the second-straight year.
In tonight’s game, Andy Pettitte (3.17 ERA/3.96 FIP/4.10 xFIP) gets his third and final regular season tune-up against Daisuke Matsuzaka (4.72 ERA/4.03 FIP/4.66 xFIP). Pettitte, of course, was awful against the Sox in his previous outing, while Daisuke looked nearly unhittable last Sunday. While it would be encouraging to see a strong start from Pettitte, I wouldn’t get too up in arms if he ends up getting shelled — after all, you may recall that in his final regular season start last year he “had no command of [his] fastball, curveball and [his] cutter was flat. There was not one thing [he] could take out of it that was positive,” and of course went on to pitch phenomenally well in the postseason. Now of course the 2009 version of Pettitte wasn’t recovering from a strained groin that sidelined him for two months, so the jury’s still out, but I feel confident that once the adrenaline of the postseason kicks into gear Andrew Eugene will kick it up to his customary next level and pitch as well as he possibly can.
In game two the Yankees and Sox get to play the last Fox Saturday Afternoon Game of Death of the season (and surprisingly, the only one to take place at Fenway Park all year), and if it wasn’t bad enough that the Yankees historically suck at Fenway park on Saturday afternoons, they’ve got the worst pitcher in the American League in the person of A.J. Burnett (5.33 ERA/4.81 FIP/4.65 xFIP) starting the game for them. And he’s facing Clay Buchholz (2.33 ERA/3.62 FIP/4.21 xFIP), who has the sixth-highest bWAR (5.2) among pitchers in the American League. I’m not even going to bother analyzing this one — if you were ever interested in betting on baseball, now is your chance to make dumptrucks full of money, as there is no surer thing on earth than the Yankees losing this game. The only way to stack the odds against the Yanks even further would be if Jon Lester (or Brett Cecil or Felix Hernandez) was starting this game.
And on Sunday, the 162nd game of the year (has it already been 162 games? Opening Day feels like it was just yesterday), Yankees.com doesn’t even have a probable pitcher listed for the final game of the season yet. I’d guess it would have to be some combination of Ivan Nova (4.91 ERA/4.42 FIP/4.35 xFIP) and Dustin Moseley (5.09 ERA/5.78 FIP/5.07 xFIP), especially since Nova will need to get some work in before the playoffs. Supposedly Phil Hughes could be tapped if the division crown was still on the line, but between his supposed innings restrictions and the Yankees needing Phil to be a big part of a deep October run, I’d be surprised if that actually happ
Whoever the Yankees do tab to start will face John Lackey (4.47 ERA/3.89 FIP/4.41 xFIP), who the Yankees somehow only managed to face twice this year despite 18 contests against the Sox, with the first outing coming way back in the third game of the season and the second one in August. Lackey didn’t allow a run in the April 7 game but was touched up for five on August 7. This one’s probably going to be a pretty ugly affair, with both teams likely to either start or sub most of their scrubs in fairly early on in the game — unless the division is still up for grabs.
Here are the two teams’ offense and pitching numbers:
Boston’s had a pretty strange year. They’re almost certainly one of the better teams not to make the postseason in recent years. They have the second-best offense in the league, and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have delivered top-10-pitcher-in-the-American-League performances. Clearly Josh Beckett and John Lackey had disappointing seasons, but their five-man rotation — including Dice-K — has the potential to dominate anybody if they all pitch to their potential.
What really killed the Sox this year was their bullpen. I first noticed their bullpen issues back in early May and it seems things have only gotten worse. A league-worst HR/9 and FIP are surefire ways to vulture wins or put games even further out of reach. Given the relative stability of the Boston rotation, one would have to assume Theo Epstein’s top priority will be relief pitching this offseason, which means there’s probably a pretty strong chance of Scott Downs becoming a Red Sock.
The Sox boast some unexpectedly strong overall team numbers over the last 30 days for a team that’s gone 13-14 in September, besting the Yankees in all seven of the above-listed categories except OBP. Obviously the 4.56 team ERA has a lot to do with Boston’s middling play.
This is the first series in a while that I don’t even feel comfortable making a prediction on the outcome. I’d like to think the Yankees could take two of three and finish the season out on a high note, but given the uncertainty of who’s going to be pitching and what kind of lineups the Yankees will be fielding, I really have no idea. Let’s just say the Yanks will take two of three, while the Rays lose two of three, and the Yankees end up capturing the AL East flag, which really should be theirs anyway given that they’ve been in or tied for first place for nearly half the season.
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