The Yankees kick off their last 10 games of the season with four against the Rays this week, three against Boston this weekend and three more with the Rays next Monday through Wednesday, before the ALDS kicks off on Friday, September 30.
This week’s set was initially supposed to be a two-gamer, but rain has forced the series to both double in size and also include a doubleheader on Wednesday. The Yankees are 6-5 against the Rays on the season, which is only two wins shy of their total against Tampa Bay in all of 2010.
The Rays came into September lightning-hot and have managed to put a scare into Red Sox Nation, creeping to within two games of the Wild Card. However, the team’s elite play really came just a bit too late, and while the remote possibility of the Rays catching up and overtaking the Red Sox remains, it still seems highly unlikely — two games may not sound like much, but that’s still a tall order with only 10 games to play, especially when you consider the Rays still need a little help from Boston. The Rays could win out the remainder of the year and still not make the playoffs. Although that doesn’t mean they still can’t try to wreak some havoc with regards to who wins the division. Additionally, as a side benefit of these shenanigans, the Rays’ nipping at the Sox’s heels has put Boston fans in the unthinkable position of having to actually root for the Yankees this week. Good times.
The Rays’ offense continues to be middle-of-the-pack (100 wRC+ on the nose), which is basically where it’s been all season. B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce and Johnny Damon have been carrying the offense in September. For its part, the Yankee offense has looked rather sickly this month, with an ugly .316 wOBA and 95 wRC+.
However, it’s the Rays’ pitching staff that’s really been turning heads, with a 3.55 ERA in September, third-best in the AL this month. And for as strong as Tampa’s rotation’s been, their embarrassment of pitching riches recently grew to absurd proportions, as Matt Moore — a consensus top 5 prospect — was recently promoted and will likely be deployed similarly to how David Price was used at the end of 2008, as a flame-throwing lefty out of the bullpen. There’d been some speculation that Moore could make his first career MLB start during tomorrow’s doubleheader, though at this point it doesn’t sound like that’s happening. If he does, the Yankees could be in trouble, as their recent history against rookies making their Major League starting pitching debuts is a bit sordid.
Probable Pitching Match-Ups
In tonight’s opener (7:05pm), Ivan Nova takes on Wade Davis. Davis throws a 92mph four-seamer, low-90s two-seamer, high-70s curve, mid-80s slider and a mid-80s change. He hasn’t seen the Yankees since last season when he started against them four times and pretty much had their number, throwing 21 innings of 8-run ball, though his last outing against them was a rain-shortened 2.1-inning stint that he didn’t allow any hits in. The 2011 Yankees have made quite an enjoyable habit this season of actually getting to pitchers that caused them so much woe in 2010, so here’s hoping that continues to occur with Davis on the hill. Nova’s only seen the Rays once this season, and turned in a pretty good 5.1-inning, one-run outing, though I seem to recall him being bailed out big time by David Robertson in that May game.
In the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader (1:05pm), right now Phil Hughes appears to be lined up to face James Shields. Prior to embarking on this post I had a sneaking suspicion following the Yankees finally getting to Josh Beckett and Felix Hernandez that Shields had the lowest ERA against them this season. And my suspicions were confirmed, thanks to the help of the lovely and talented Diane Firstman of Value Over Replacement Grit and Bronx Banter fame (a tip of the cap also goes to the inimitable Jay Jaffe, who also reminded me of the existence of David Pinto’s spectacular Day-by-Day Database) as Shields’ 1.59 mark against the Yankees is indeed the lowest ERA of all pitchers that have made a minimum of two starts against the Yankees this season. Believe it or not, R.A. Dickey of all people is #2 on that list, ahead of Jered Weaver. Shields also turned in a 3.35 ERA over 37.2 innings and six(!) starts against the Yankees in 2010, a figure that falls to 2.51 if you remove the awesomely surprising 5-run outburst they had against him last September 21.
Diane also pulled up a list of every pitcher that has made a start against the Yankees over the last two seasons, and of pitchers that have made at least three starts during that time, Shields’ 2.69 ERA is the second-lowest, bested only by Felix’s 2.35. Perhaps even crazier is the fact that not only has Shields experienced this level of success against the Yankees, but no one has thrown more innings against them than the 60.1 innings he has tossed since the beginning of 2010. Josh Beckett is right behind him with 60.0, and the next-closest is teammate David Price, with 52.0 innings. One might think that after having seen a player that frequently that the team might have finally figured something out, but when you throw the third-best changeup in the game against a lineup that fares pretty poorly against them, things like this apparently happen.
Anyway, in case you haven’t had enough Shields, that famous 84mph change is set up by a 91mph four-seamer and complemented by a 78mph curve and 86mph slider. Shields also boasts a two-seamer and an above-average though relatively infrequently used cutter, but his bread-and-butter are the offspeed offerings.
In the second game of Wednesday’s doubleheader (7:05pm), CC Sabathia faces Jeremy Hellickson. The righty Hellickson’s primarily a fastball-change-curve guy to righties and fastball/change/two-seamer to lefties, with a four-seamer that averages 91mph, a change that’s an impressive 11mph slower than the fastball, and a mid-70s curve. Hellboy got beat up by the Yankees last time at the Stadium, but prior to that he held them to two runs over 7 IP in July, so it’s really anyone’s guess as to which Hellickson will show up here. One thing going for the Yankees is that Hellickson has continued to outpitch the heck out of his FIP — and is in fact leading MLB by a wide margin in E-F — which is good news for the Yankees as they seem to have a propensity for pounding guys near the league lead in negative ERA-FIP deltas. Think Trevor Cahill last year.
I don’t want to discount what Hellickson has done on the season, because a sub-3.00 ERA is impressive, but as someone with a sub-6.00 K/9 and a way-below average low-30% GB%, he clearly owes a great deal of his success to the lowest BABIP in the league. That’s not to say he won’t continue to be a very good pitcher going forward, but he’ll need to boost those peripherals, because no one can maintain a .229 BABIP. Think about it this way: Justin Verlander, who many expect will win the Cy Young Award this year, has the second-lowest BABIP in baseball, at .237. His career BABIP is .286. You do the math.
CC of course had that strange five-home-run outing against Tampa Bay last month. Prior to that he’d been mostly untouchable in two previous starts against the Rays, and something tells me he probably won’t allow five earned runs for a second straight start against the same team.
And the Thursday evening (7:05pm) finale features Bartolo Colon against Jeff Niemann. Though he lost time earlier in the season to injury, Niemann’s in the midst of perhaps his best professional season, with a career-high K/9 and GB% and a career-low BB/9. He throws a 91mph fastball, but his weapon of choice is the two-seamer, which righties will see 42% of the time and lefties 33%. He also has a high-70s curve and low-80s change. Niemann completely stymied the Yankees last time he saw them, to the tune of 7.1 innings of one-run ball. He also turned in a 6.1-inning, four-run performance last season, and actually has a 3.10 career ERA against the Bombers over 29 innings, making him yet another Rays’ starter who apparently has the Yankees’ number.
Colon’s seen the Rays twice and got knocked around the first time (5 ER in 5.2 IP) but was much better a week-and-a-half later (1 ER in 6.1 IP).
Four-gamers are always tough to call (unless you’re playing the Orioles), and given the myriad problems the Yankees have had with most of the starters the Rays are throwing at them this week — not to mention the fact that the offense still has yet to really get back on track — I think fans would have to be elated with a split.
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