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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

KR: Yankees are no cinch when postseason begins

Kenny Boy might just have gotten this one right:

The 2009 Yankees are not much different statistically from the 2005, '06 and '07 Joe Torre teams that got knocked out in the first round.

Those clubs all ranked first or second in the American League in runs, pitched average to slightly below-average and defended with minimal proficiency.

These Yankees, true to form, rank first in the league runs and eighth in ERA. They play better defense, thanks in large part to the addition of first baseman Mark Teixeira, improvement of shortstop Derek Jeter and use of Brett Gardner in center field. But if the Yankees go deep into the postseason, it might be due more to inferior first-round competition than actual superiority.

That is not a knock — the Yankees, who host the Red Sox this weekend (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4 p.m.) would earn the right to play the AL Central "champion" by holding off the Sox for the division title.

Securing the top seed would give the Yankees a clear advantage. Neither the Tigers nor Twins is close to the same level as the '05 Angels, '06 Tigers and '07 Indians, all of which won at least 95 games in the regular season before defeating the Yankees in the first round.

The prevailing theory is that the Tigers would stand a puncher's chance with right-hander Justin Verlander pitching Game 1. Verlander, though, would face a powerhouse lineup while Yankees lefty CC Sabathia — a pitcher of similar merit — would face the feeble Tigers.

A doomsday scenario with Sabathia losing Game 1 and right-hander A.J. Burnett botching Game 2 is not out of the question. But more likely, the Yankees will win the series easily enough to set up their rotation for the ALCS, while the Red Sox and Angels stage a more spirited struggle that leaves the winner depleted for the next round.

Then again, this is the postseason.

Anything is possible. Nothing is guaranteed.

"We've gone in with 100-win teams and gotten knocked out in the first round," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says, referring specifically to the 2002 club that won 103 games and lost to the Angels.

How will A.J. Burnett handle the postseason? (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

"Those teams felt comfortable and confident. We were the favorites, the odds-on favorites in Vegas. We had good teams and got knocked out early.

"When you're in that position, you dissect yourself — 'this is where we weren't good enough' and all that. But I can tell you being part of it: Our players were prepared. Our players were confident. And we got beat."

The biggest difference with these Yankees, one rival GM says, is the power at the top of their rotation, the swing-and-miss stuff of Sabathia and Burnett.

Burnett ranks fourth in the league in strikeout rate, Sabathia 10th and Andy Pettitte 16th. While no pitcher on the '07 Yankees ranked in the top 20, the two teams before that were not exactly helpless. Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson ranked in the top 11 in strikeout rate in '06, Johnson and Mussina in the top seven in '05.

Sabathia, though, is something different — a Yankees ace in his prime. Burnett — the good Burnett — arguably is the Yankees' best No. 2 starter in years. The Yankees spent a combined $243.5 million on the two free agents last offseason in large part to improve their postseason chances. If Sabathia and Burnett fail ... don't even ask.

Cashman attributes Burnett's turnaround in his last two starts to improved mechanics, and perhaps now A.J. Enigma will get on a roll. Still, Burnett has never pitched in the postseason. Until proven otherwise, he is a coin flip.

Sabathia is quite the opposite; never mind his 7.92 ERA in five postseason starts. He was geeked up and worn down in 2007, his first postseason with the Indians. A year ago, his one start for the Brewers in the playoffs was his fourth straight on three days' rest — and he was utterly masterful down the stretch, pitching in the near-equivalent of postseason games.

Sabathia will enter the playoffs having thrown fewer innings in the regular season than he did in '07 and '08. He is 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA in four September starts, his best month as a Yankee. He should be the least of the club's problems.

The Yankees' real challenge, one way or another, figures to come in the ALCS.

The Red Sox have torched Burnett for 20 runs in 20 1/3 innings this season, an 8.85 ERA. Sabathia has pitched well against the Sox, Pettitte decently. Right-hander Joba Chamberlain, the expected Game 4 starter, has posted a 5.06 ERA in three starts against the Sox, failing to complete six innings in any of them.

Granted, the sample sizes are small, but the Yankees' starters' ERAs against the Angels are even more disturbing: Burnett 4.26, Chamberlain 5.40, Sabathia 6.08, Pettitte 7.88.

Good as the Yankees' offense is, the team's recent postseason history only reinforces the importance of dominant starting pitching. The Yankees this season average 5.67 runs per game. From '05 to '07, they averaged 5.47, 5.74 and 5.98, respectively — and a lot of good it did them in October.

Another first-round knockout would be even more deflating than the past three, considering how much money the Yankees spent last offseason, how much better they are than the Tigers and Twins. Each postseason is different. Billy Beane was correct to call it a "crapshoot." But this time, the Yankees' first-round opponent will be close to a gimme.

The Yankees can't lose, can they?

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