The Yankees have just 22 games remaining in the regular season, and if the season ended today, their Division Series opponent would be the Texas Rangers. So, yes, this series is something of a playoff preview. I say "something of" because, while the Yankees will face three of the Rangers' presumptive playoff starters--ace Cliff Lee on Sunday, lefty number-two C.J. Wilson tonight, and default number-four Tommy Hunter in the middle game--the Rangers will get a look at what I'm hoping will prove to be just one of the Yankees' postseason starters, that being A.J. Burnett, who faces Hunter on Saturday.
Also, the Rangers are currently without left fielder Josh Hamilton, who isn't just a key bat in their lineup, he's the likely AL MVP, an offensive weapon who has hit .410/.461/.717 over a three-month span dating back to June 1. Hamilton, who had been battling knee and back issues as well, bruised his ribs in a collision with the outfield wall last Saturday, hasn't played since, and is listed as out indefinitely. He played light catch on Wednesday, but otherwise, the Rangers and their fans continue to hold their breath, hoping they'll have Hamilton back at full strength by the postseason, but not knowing for sure when or even if he'll return this season (Hamilton, who would know, said he feels like he's "been in a car wreck").
As it turns out, these two teams likely won't face each other at full strength until the postseason. When they last met in early August, splitting a pair of games in Arlington, Mark Teixeira was on unofficial paternity leave and Robinson Cano missed the first game (the Rangers' win) with an illness. Their only other meeting this season came in mid-April, when the Yankees swept a three-game set in the Bronx, but two of the Rangers' starters in that series were Rich Harden and Scott Feldman, both of whom have since been banished to the bullpen. The Yankees counter Harden and Feldman in this series with Javy Vazquez and Dustin Moseley, both of whom have spent time in the bullpen this season as well, while both rosters have inflated over 30 men, which could effect the way both skippers manage the games this weekend.
So this is something of a playoff preview, but don't try to project this series onto a potential Division Series. Similarly, I won't dig much further into the matchup right now. I'll save that for what's sure to be a massive preview of the ALDS.
I will note, however, that the Rangers are just 30-33 since July 1 and have scored just 4.21 runs per game over that span despite the presence, until the past week, of Hamilton's red-hot bat in the heart of the order. Among the explanations for that performance are repeated injuries to Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler, both of whom were most recently activated from the disabled list around the end of August, and the second-half decline of cleanup hitter Vladimir Guerrero, an early-season MVP contender who has hit hit .247/.290/.398 since July 1.
Pitching matchups, analysis, and the Rangers' roster below the jump . . .
Javier Vazquez vs. C.J. Wilson (Friday, September 10, 8:05, YES)
Vazquez hasn't made a quality start since July 26, and when he faced the Rangers in Arlington on August 11, he gave up six runs on eight hits in 4 1/2 innings while striking out just one. The Yankees never really rested his supposedly dead arm. Instead they just shunted him to the bullpen, where he continued to work long outings at a regular pace (4 1/3 innings on three-day's rest, 4 2/3 on four day's rest) after which he returned to the rotation on regular rest and got beat up once again. His only good stretch this season was highly dependent upon an absurdly low opponents' average on balls in play. Including this one, Vazquez could make five more starts this season, but he'd have to dominate in all of them for me to have any confidence in him as a starter in the postseason.
Lefty converted reliever C.J. Wilson has been one of the most successful pitchers in the American League this season. I say "successful" rather than "best" because he has succeeded despite leading the leagues in walks (though not in walk rate at 4.1 BB/9) and with the considerable help of a .257 opponents average on balls in play. That said, unless his last outing against the Twins was the start of a trend, he's not shown any fatigue as he has blazed by his previous career high of 136 innings pitched (set way back in 2002 in a season split between High-A and Double-A). Wilson reached that total just before his last start against the Yankees, in which he pitched well, but ran into trouble in the sixth and got the hook in a game the Rangers went on to win. Including that start and his ugly outing last time out against the Twins, Wilson has gone 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in six starts since passing his previous career high in innings, and while his BABIP has still been low over that stretch (.264), his strikeout and walk rates have actually been better than on his season as a whole (9.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9). Wilson, who is now more than 100 innings past his 2009 total, will likely be the Rangers number-two starter in the playoffs, so the Yankees would do well to study him closely tonight.
A.J. Burnett vs. Tommy Hunter (Saturday, September 11, 8:05, YES/MLBN)
Burnett pitched relatively well in his last two starts, though given the quality of his opposition--the A's and Orioles--and his habit of falling apart after two solid starts (Burnett goes rotten quicker than an overripe peach), that doesn't provide much reason for optimism for this game. More encouraging is that Burnett has a pair of seven-inning quality starts against the Rangers this year. He shut them out for seven innings in a Yankee win back during his hot start in April, then on August 10 he held them to three runs over seven innings, but took a no-decision in a Yankee loss. As I wrote yesterday and again this morning, Burnett seems like a lock for the postseason rotation, so here's hoping he does indeed have the Rangers number and they didn't just happen to catch him on two of his good days.
Hunter missed the first two months of the season with an oblique strain, and when he returned he went 8-0 with a 2.31 ERA in his first ten starts thanks to a .227 BABIP. Since then, he's gone 4-3 with a 6.39 ERA and a more normal .283 BABIP in eight starts. Those eight starts have had a Burnett-like distribution to them. Three were disasters in which he was bounced after three innings. Three were quality-start wins. A fourth fell one out shy of a quality start, and in the last, also his last, he pitched seven innings but also gave up seven runs. Hunter gives up a lot of home runs (2.7 per nine innings over those last eight starts!) while striking out very few batters (4.3 per nine over those last eight), but he's locked in as the Rangers fourth starter in the playoffs, which is good news for the Yankees, who haven't faced Hunter since his second major league start back in August 2008 (he gave up five runs in 4 1/3 innings and lost, though none of his three big-league starts that year went well).
Dustin Moseley vs. Cliff Lee (Sunday, September 12, 3:05, YES/TBS)
Moseley is starting for Phil Hughes, who has been pushed back to Wednesday and has said he has three starts left in the regular season before hitting his innings limit. Moseley has faced exactly two batters out of the bullpen since making his last start on August 30. Moseley went 4-2 with a 5.03 ERA in his seven previous starts for the Yankees. He also allowed eight home runs (1.8 HR/9IP) and struck out just four more men than he walked (1.22 K/BB on a 5.0 K/9).
Lee was scratched from his last back due to a stiff lower back. That came after he had gone 0-3 with an 8.28 ERA in his previous five turns. Thing is, with the exception of a start in Baltimore in which he coughed up four home runs, Lee actually pitched pretty well over those five starts. He struck out 35 men in 29 1/3 innings against just three walks, but his opponents hit a staggering .418 on balls in play. It wasn't that Lee was serving up meatballs; his line drive rate was just 15 percent (the league average hovers around 20 percent). He was just really, really unlucky. Lee had a similar rough stretch with the Phillies last year when he went 2-4 with a 6.13 ERA in his final seven regular season starts, but though is BABIP in those starts was also high (.386), so was his line-drive rate (30 percent). So this ain't that, and Lee isn't suddenly vulnerable or off his game. Even last year, after ending the regular season with a thud he went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five playoff starts, all of them coming in Phillies wins. I fully expect Lee to dominate in the postseason again this year, and any team that wants to beat the Rangers is going to have to be able to win the games Lee doesn't pitch (which in the Yankees case, likely means the games CC Sabathia doesn't pitch).
2010 Record: 77-63 (.550)
2010 Pythagorean Record: 78-62 (.557)
Manager: Ron Washington
General Manager: Jon Daniels
Home Ballpark: Rangers Ballpark in Arlington
Bill James Park Indexes (2007-2009):
LH Avg-100, LH HR-117
RH Avg-107, RH HR-110
• Derek Holland has replaced Rich Harden in the rotation while Harden has replaced Frank Francisco (DL) in the bullpen
• Ian Kinsler, Matt Treanor, and Dustin Nippert have been activated from the DL
• Jeff Francoeur was acquired from the Mets for Joaquin Arias
• Esteban German, Michael Kirkman, Pedro Strop, and Clay Rapada have been called up
1B - Mitch Moreland (L)
2B - Ian Kinsler (R)
SS - Elvis Andrus (R)
3B - Michael Young (R)
C - Bengie Molina (R)
RF - Nelson Cruz (RF)
CF - Julio Borbon (L)
LF - David Murphy (L)
DH - Vladimir Guerrero (R)
L - Josh Hamilton (LF)
R - Jorge Cantu (1B/3B)
S - Christian Guzman (IF)
R - Jeff Francoeur (OF)
S - Andrew Blanco (IF)
R - Esteban German (IF)
R - Matt Treanor (C)
R - Taylor Teagarden (C)
L - Cliff Lee
L - Derek Holland
R - Colby Lewis
L - C.J. Wilson
R - Tommy Hunter
R - Neftali Feliz
R - Rich Harden
R - Darren O'Day
L - Darren Oliver
R - Alexi Ogando
R - Scott Feldman
L - Matt Harrison
L - Michael Kirkman
R - Pedro Strop
R - Dustin Nippert
L - Clay Rapada
RHP - Frank Francisco (strained right latissimus dorsi)
CF - Craig Gentry (fractured right wrist)
RHP - Brandon McCarthy (sore right shoulder)
RHP - Eric Hurley (torn rotator cuff, broken wrist)
RHP - Mark Lowe (back surgery)
RHP - Omar Beltre (right ankle sprain)
R - Elvis Andrus (SS)
R - Michael Young (3B)
L - David Murphy (LF)
R - Vladimir Guerrero (DH)
R - Nelson Cruz (RF)
R - Ian Kinsler (2B)
L - Mitch Moreland (1B)
R - Bengie Molina (C)
L - Julio Borbon (CF)