Friday, October 16, 2009

Conquering The Tough Road Ahead

While the Yankees' fiercest battles over the years may have been against the hated Red Sox, no team has given the Bombers more trouble than the Angels.

We all know the history. The Angels are the only team the Yankees did not have a winning record against in the Joe Torre era. Twice, in 2002 and again in '05, the Angels eliminated the Yankees in the American League Division Series. And last season the Yankees went 3-7 against the Halos.

In short, the Angels have tormented the Yankees like demons from the depths of hell.

But these are not the same Yankees as the past. And those are not the same Angels.

No one in his or her right mind would ever believe this is going to be an easy series, but this is the year the Yankees' turn the table on the Angels. The Yankees will win this AL Championship Series and return to the World Series for the first time since 2003.

We started to sense that in the regular season when the Yankees won three of the last four to split the 10-game season series. In addition, the Yankees won 2 of 3 at Anaheim in September, the first time they won a series there since 2004.

But there's more to it than that. In a sense, some roles have been reversed between these teams.

Whereas in the past the Yankees have been overly reliant on their offense, this year it's the Angels who have had to rely on their lineup, while the Yankees built a major-league best 103 wins with balance, finally getting the strong pitching to match their potent offense.

Let's take a look at the numbers and AL Ranks:
Pitching -- Overall
Angels Rank Category Yankees Rank

4.45 9th ERA 4.26 4th
.272 11th BAA .251 2nd
1,062 9th K's 1,260 1st
523 5th BB 574 11th
.769 11th OPS .734 2nd
180 7th HRS 181 8th
1.41 9th WHIP 1.35 2nd
Pitching -- Bullpen
Angels Rank Category Yankees Rank

4.49 11th ERA 3.91 1st
.270 13th BAA .231 1st
398 11th K's 483 2nd
207 8th BB 198 6th
.761 12th OPS .701 2nd
52 5th HRs 72 t-13th
1.46 11th WHIP 1.25 1st



Hitting
Angels Rank Category Yankees Rank

883 2nd Runs 915 1st
1,604 t-1st Hits 1,604 t-1st
173 8th HRs 244 1st
.285 1st BA .283 2nd
.792 3rd OPS .839 1st
148 3rd SB 111 7th
547 7th BB 663 1st
1,054 7th K's 1,014 2nd
Of course statistics never tell the full story. The Angels acquired tough lefty Scott Kazmir prior to the Aug. 31 trade deadline, giving them a very balanced rotation and an advantage should Mother Nature force the Yankees to go to a fourth starter.

Still, the larger point is that these Yankees are not the same teams that struggled in the playoffs so mightily since 2004. The stats and the season show this team is dynamic and can win in a number of different ways, and against the Angels that is ever so important.

The Angels play and uber-aggressive style that puts a lot of pressure on their opponent. Offensively, the use speed to force the defense into mistakes. They go first-to-third more than anyone in the league and are more than willing to steal. On the mound, they attack the strike zone, making it difficult to be selective. Most importantly they do not make mistakes and beat themselves.

In the past, all that made it difficult for the Yankees' offense to generate runs because of its over-reliance on homers, while applying pressure to a pitching staff that was not known for striking out batters.

But that has not been the case this year. While the Yankees struggled to manufacture runs in the first half, hitting just .265 with runners in scoring position, they became much more efficient cahsin in on their run scoring opportunities after the All-Star break, hitting .279. In the ALDS against the Twins, that number jumped to .353.

In addition Brett Gardner and Freddy Guzman give the Yankees two speedsters who will allow the Pinstripes to give the Halos a dose of their own medicine on the basepaths.

Meanwhile, the additions of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett prior to the season bolstered the rotation with two power arms who can strike out batters in big spots to escape big jams and go deep into game. That's important against the Angels because strikeouts take pressure off the defense from having to make big play after big play after big play.

Finally, there are the bullpens. Gone are the likes of Scot Shiels, Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival from the Angels' pen. Instead the Halos have Darren Oliver, Kevin Jespen and Jason Bulger setting up Brian Fuentes, who had a major league best 48 saves, but also blew seven chances, including one in New York on May 1. That does not bode well against the Yankees, especially for the games in New York, where the Bombers had 15 walkoff wins in the regular season -- most in the majors -- and one more in the ALDS.

After a rough first two months, the Yankees' bullpen jelled to become one of the best units in the majors. Mariano Rivera remains the greatest closer in the game (After the ALDS, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan have trouble staking that claim), while Phil Hughes has solidified the eighth. Joba Chamberlain's return the bullpen (assuming he doesn't become the fourth starter, if necessary) has meant that if the Yankees have the lead after six innings, the game is basically over.

Still it's not going to be easy. The Angels are confident, tough and resilient. They won't lie down for the Yankees and the Bombers are going to have to play at a very high level to beat them.

I see the the winning a tough series in six games, winning the first two at home on the arms of Sabathia and Burnett and eliminating whatever psychological advantage the Angels feel they might have in the process.

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