This is it. The make-or-break part of the Yankees’ season has arrived. The team’s next fourteen games all come against playoff contenders, six against the division leading Angels and Red Sox and, starting tonight, a whopping eight games against the Tigers, who are currently tied with the Indians atop the Central. After that, the Yanks have just three in Boston, three at home against the Wild Card-leading Mariners amid 21 more games against the cupcakes (though that 21 does include six more matches with Baltimore). Two weeks from tonight the Yankees will either be heading toward the playoffs or reeling from a harsh dose of reality.
The good news is that they’ve played contenders well since flipping the switch in July, going 5-1 against the Indians and Angels with an addition 3-1 against the pretending Twins. The Tigers, meanwhile, have been heading in the other direction.
The Detroit Tigers’ high water mark came at the conclusion of a three-game sweep of the Twins in Minnesota on July 19 when they were 21 games over .500 and held a two-games lead over the Indians in the AL Central. Detroit hasn’t won a single series since then and counts among their loses two of three at home to the Royals in which their only win came in extra innings, six of eight to the White Sox, four of seven to the A’s, and a four-game split at home against the Devil Rays. In total, the Tigers have gone 9-18 since leaving Minnesota and have fallen into a tie with the similarly slumping Indians atop the Central and a game behind the Yankees in the Wild Card race.
Whereas the Indians problem of late has been scoring runs, the Tigers’ problem has been preventing them. Over those last 27 games, Detroit has allowed 6.70 runs per game, this despite 21 of those contests occurring in the typically pitcher-friendly Comerica Park and the even more pitcher-friendly
Oakland McAfee Coliseum. Curiously, Comerica has been and oddly neutral park this season, and the Tigers have been better at preventing runs on the road, where they’ve allowed 4.79 runs per game as opposed to 5.52 runs per game at home. As a result, they’ve been a much stronger road team, but that hasn’t held true over the last 27 games, as the Tigers have been equally terrible at home (5-9, 6.86 R/G allowed) and on the road (4-9, 6.53 R/G allowed).
The reason for the Tigers’ pitching struggles throughout the season has been injuries. Ace set-up man Joel Zumaya hasn’t pitched since May 1 following surgery on the middle finger on his throwing hand (he’s due back soon, but not for this series). Kenny Rogers, who was a huge part of their pennant-winning season last year, had offseason shoulder surgery and was active for just about a month beginning in late June before landing back on the DL with elbow inflammation after posting a 9.98 ERA in the last three of his six starts. Andrew Miller, the team’s top pitching prospect and 2006 draftee who was promoted to fill the rotation spot vacated when the struggling Mike Maroth was traded to St. Louis, strained a hamstring in his August 3 start against the White Sox and landed on the DL. Filling in for those three are 33-year-old journeyman Tim Byrdak, who didn’t see major league action from 2001 to 2004 and had his own DL stint in July due to elbow tendonitis, journeyman Chad Durbin, who last started in the majors in 2004, and rookie Jair Jurrjens, who made his major league debut in a loss to the Indians last night.
Further complicating the issue, remaining starters Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman have underperformed. Bonderman was expected to have a break-out season, but has been merely average, spending some time on the DL himself in May due to a blister, and posting a 9.20 ERA over his five starts since that Minnesota series. Robertson pitched over his head last year, but has gone too far in the other direction this season and was actually DLed in June due to what was termed a “tired arm.” Similar things can be said about incumbent set-up men Fernando Rodney, who was awful earlier in the season and spent all of July on the DL with shoulder and elbow tendonitis, and Jason Grilli, who’s been overused as a result of the injuries to Zumaya and Rodney and has seen his performance suffer as a result.
The Tigers can’t even count on 2006 Rookie of the Year and current staff ace Justin Verlander to hold the wolves at bay. Verlander, who starts tonight, has a 5.14 ERA over his last eight starts despite solid peripherals, has lasted more that six innings in only one of his last five starts, and has turned in quality starts in just two of his last six and three of those last eight. To all of that you can add the flu, which has been going around the Tiger clubhouse of late and could impact Verlander’s performance tonight.
On the flip side, the Tiger offense is second only to the Yankees in runs per game this season. The key difference being that, unlike the Yankees, the Tigers have some soft spots in their batting order, specifically third baseman Brandon Inge (.239/.316/.391), 35-year-old catcher Ivan Rodriguez (.278/.288/.426), and left fielder Craig Monroe (.222/.264/.373). Monroe has been so bad, in fact, that he appears to be losing his job to the recently reactivated Marcus Thames, starting only when Thames shifts to first base to spell Sean Casey against lefties.
At the same time, the tough spots in the Tiger order are very, very tough. Gary Sheffield, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, and especially Magglio Ordoñez are all having outstanding seasons. Sheffield’s season is a dead ringer for his two healthy seasons in New York except he’s been far more active on the bases, stealing 18 of 22, and even harder to strike out. Granderson appears to have made the leap at age 26. The most remarkable thing about his season isn’t necessarily his 18 triples, but the fact that 12 of them have come on the road. Polanco is enjoying a career year with a performance that’s a dead ringer for what he did over the remainder of 2005 after being acquired from the Phillies. Guillen is merely playing to his usual high standard. Finally, Ordoñez is a legitimate challenger to Alex Rodriguez’s MVP hopes, matching Rodriguez in the cumulative total-performance stat VORP despite fewer plate appearances. In third place in the AL: Jorge Posada. In fact, the Yankees and Tigers combine to employ ten of the top 22 VORP totals in the American League. The five Tigers are the men just discussed. The three Yankees after Rodriguez and Posada are Jeter, Matsui, and Cano.
The man who will try to tame those Tiger bats tonight will be Mike Mussina. Moose has been on a roll of late, posting a 2.84 ERA over his last four starts, all wins. He’s not walked a batter in his last 22 innings pitched. He will, however, have to cope with Jason Giambi at first base tonight, as G’Bombi will get the start at first for the first time since May 3. Hideki Matsui will DH, Johnny Damon’s in left, and the Yankee lineup is utterly seamless. Wow.