Keys to winning the 2012 ALCS By Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
The New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers meet up for the second straight year and the third time in the last seven postseasons when they kick off the American League Championship Series on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
Only this time a trip to the World Series will be at stake.
The last two postseason meetings came in the ALDS, including last year's five- game affair, which saw Detroit seal the series with an improbable Game 5 win in the Bronx. The Tigers also beat the Yankees in four games back in 2006, en route to their first World Series appearance since 1984.
The AL Central champion Tigers are back in the ALCS for a sixth time.
New York, meanwhile, is in this round for the 15th time overall and for the third time in the last four years. Thanks to their 95-67 regular season, the AL East champions will host the first two games of this series, as well as the final two, if needed.
The Yankees, who are seeking their 28th World Series title, took six of the 10 regular season meetings between these teams.
As an introduction to this ALCS matchup, let's take a look at some of the keys to winning the series for both clubs:
NEW YORK YANKEES
1. ALEX RODRIGUEZ
Unless you've been living under a rock the past couple of days you know that Yankees manager Joe Girardi pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez in Games 3 and 4 of the ALDS against the Orioles and benched him in favor of Eric Chavez in the crucial fifth game.
Putting Rodriguez on the bench for the clincher was a gutsy move, but an easy one, as the three-time AL MVP was just 2-for-16 in the series and was hitless in nine at-bats versus right-handers with seven strikeouts.
The big question now, though, is what is Rodriguez's role going forward? If he's been relegated to platoon status, he may not see much action in the ALCS, as the Tigers will throw all right-handed starters the Yankees' way.
As much trouble as he's had in the postseason, Rodriguez is a .313 hitter with seven home runs and 18 RBI in 26 ALCS games.
2. WHO STARTS GAME 2?
With the ALCS starting the day after the ALDS, the Yankees may have a problem in the starting pitching department for Game 2. CC Sabathia won Friday's clincher, so he's out and Andy Pettitte is going in Game 1.
Japanese righty Hiroki Kuroda was terrific for the Yankees all season and was great in his Game 3 start against the Orioles. But a Game 2 assignment would mean he would be starting on short rest, something the 37-year-old hasn't done since coming to the majors.
Rookie David Phelps pitched well for New York down the stretch and could get the call, despite getting the loss in relief in Game 4 of the ALDS.
If you are looking for a surprise starter in this spot, how about veteran Derek Lowe, whose postseason experience landed him on the roster in the first place.
3. RAFAEL SORIANO
The New York Yankees are an amazing 93-0 at home in the postseason when leading after eight innings. A big reason for that, of course, has been the presence of the greatest reliever to ever play in Mariano Rivera.
Rivera, though, is out for the year recovering from an ACL injury and while Rafael Soriano filled in admirably during the regular season, saving 42 games, he has nowhere near the air of invincibility as Mo, especially in October when he was basically automatic.
Soriano didn't have many opportunities against the O's, but pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings in two appearances.
Righty David Robertson serves as the main bridge to Soriano, while Boone Logan is called upon to get lefties out. Right-hander Joba Chamberlain's status for this series is up in the air after he was hit in the elbow by a broken bat in the Game 4 loss to the Orioles.
The whole group was terrific in the ALDS, as they combined to pitch 11 1/3 innings and allowed a run and six hits, with 10 strikeouts and did not issue a single walk.
1. JUSTIN VERLANDER
If there has been a knock on Justin Verlander it has been his inability to get it done in the postseason, as he entered these playoffs with a 3-3 mark and a 5.57 ERA over eight starts.
Verlander, though, won both of his starts against the A's, surrendering just one run over 16 frames, while striking out 22. Could it be that the American League's reigning MVP and Cy Young Award winner has added dominant postseason starter to his already remarkable resume?
Including the playoffs, the 29-year-old has won his last six starts and has posted a minuscule 0.64 ERA during the span.
But with the ALCS starting on Saturday, the Tigers may only have the great Verlander for two starts in the next round and he probably won't pitch until Tuesday's Game 3. He'd also be available in a potential seventh game on short rest.
2. MIGUEL CABRERA/PRINCE FIELDER
Offensively, the Tigers are powered by Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and first baseman Prince Fielder, but neither contributed much in the ALDS.
Cabrera, of course, became the first Triple Crown winner since 1967, as he led the American League with a batting average of .330 along with 44 home runs and 139 RBI.
However, he only drove in one run and hit .250 against the A's, but could get himself right in this series, as he is a career .356 in 40 games against the Yankees with 15 HRs and 37 RBI.
Cabrera isn't the only masher in the Tigers' lineup. He moved over to third base this year to accommodate Fielder, a free agent addition who enjoyed his first year in Motown by hitting .313 with 30 home runs and 108 RBI.
Like Cabrera, though, Fielder struggled against the A's and managed just a .190 average (4-for-21) in the five-game set.
Even with those two, the Tigers still hit 82 less home runs than the Yankees this season.
3. PAPA GRANDE
Closer Jose Valverde has been nowhere as good as he was last year, and could be running out of steam. Valverde was a perfect 52-for-52 in save opportunities last season, but blew six games this year, including Wednesday's Game 4 against Oakland.
Valverde has always lived on the edge on the mound and you can bet your bottom dollar the Yankees will put him to the test at some point in this series.