Because baseball's regular season is so long and arduous, the rapid fire postseason, which features seven-, five-, and now one-game series, is more like a separate entity than the continuation of the 162-game schedule. That's why the same formula that works from April to September doesn't necessarily translate to October. We know the Yankees were good enough to be the best team in the American League over 162 games, but can they reign supreme in the postseason as well? Tomorrow, The Pinstriped Bible will have a complete postseason breakdown, including a detailed analysis of the Yankees ALDS showdown/rematch with the Orioles. In the meantime, below are four key questions, regardless of opponent, that could determine whether or not the Yankees' 28th championship is in the offing.
1. Can the Big Lefty Still Shoulder a Heavy Postseason Load?
During his four years in pinstripes, CC Sabathia has been a bona fide ace. In each season, the left hander has topped 200 innings, while posting a cumulative ERA of 3.22. Among all franchise pitchers with at least 900 innings, Sabathia's ERA+ of 136 ranks second, so under normal conditions, there wouldn't be many questions about the big lefty. However, this year, Sabathia made two trips to the disabled list, including his first visit because of an arm injury.
Although there was some concern about Sabathia's health and performance at the beginning of September, the lefty quieted all doubters by ending the season with three dominant outings (four runs and 28 strikeouts in 24 innings). At just the right time, Sabathia has returned to being an ace, but can he withstand the rigors of the postseason?
In 2009, the Yankees leaned heavily on Sabathia, who pitched over 36 innings in five starts, including two on three-days rest. If needed, could he shoulder a similar burden this postseason? On the one hand, the injuries create some doubts, but then again, Sabathia's diminished workload during the regular season could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Of course, with Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, and Phil Hughes rounding out one of the deepest rotations in October, Joe Girardi is probably hoping he won't have to push Sabathia to the limit. Still, it's nice to have that ace in the hole just in case.
2. Will Life Without Mariano Go As Smoothly in October?
Mariano Rivera is the undisputed greatest closer in the history of the game. In addition to recording a record 608 saves, the future Hall of Famer's ERA+ of 206 ranks as the highest mark among all major league pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched. However, those impressive numbers still pale in comparison to the astounding performance he has compiled during the postseason.
In 141 innings over 96 games in October, Rivera has allowed a grand total of 11 earned runs, good for a miniscule ERA of 0.70. For perspective, even if Rivera allowed 36 earned runs without retiring a batter, his postseason ERA still wouldn't rise above three. Exit Sandman and enter Rafael Soriano.
Soriano did a remarkable job filling in for Rivera during the regular season, but closing games in October is a different challenge. It's hard to glean much from his 7 2/3 postseason innings to date, but it is interesting to note that, in 133 fewer innings, Soriano has allowed almost half as many earned runs as Rivera. Besides, if the Yankees are going to be preoccupied by a small sample size, the last 4 1/3 innings of the regular season are probably more relevant. In his final four outings, Soriano allowed three runs, including two home runs, a stretch that culminated in a 43-pitch outing against Boston.
Can Soriano handle the increased pressure of the postseason? Was he tiring down the stretch? Will there be a residual impact from such a high pitch count? All of those questions will likely be swirling around in the minds of Yankee fans, and perhaps even Joe Girardi's head, when (and if) Soriano is called upon to record his first postseason save.
3. Is Cano's Ready to Carry the Offense?
If Robinson Cano wasn't already considered the most potent offensive player on the Yankees, his final 10 games settled the debate. Over that stretch, the second baseman hit an eye-popping .558/.574/.930, cementing what turned out to be the best season of his already impressive career. Now, the Yankees need him to carry over that performance into October.
Before the 2006 ALDS, Tigers' manager Jim Leyland referred to the Yankees lineup as Murderer's Row and Robbie Cano. Now, the second baseman is the heart of the offense. The torch has already been passed in the regular season, but the Yankees' World Series aspirations could depend on how far Cano is able to run with it in October.
4. Will the Arod of Old Show Up in the Postseason, or Just an Old Arod?
Like Sabathia on the pitching side, Alex Rodriguez's’ clutch performance in the 2009 postseason was a driving force behind the Yankees’ last championship. Although it’s hard to expect anywhere near a similar performance from Arod, or any hitter for that matter, the Yankees still need their third baseman to be a productive part of the lineup.
In 129 plate appearances since returning from the disabled list, Rodriguez batted an underwhelming .261/.341/.369 during a stretch that included a career high 77 plate appearances without an extra base hit and 11 consecutive games without an RBI (thanks to Melky Mesa). Considering his position in the middle of the lineup, the Yankees need Arod's bat to awaken in October, but is that a reasonable expectation? Well, if fatigue was a contributing factor to his slump, there may be cause for hope. Rodriguez started 28 games in 31 days at the end of the regular season, but the playoff schedule is much less demanding. If the built-in rest can help rejuvenate the 37-year old slugger, opposing pitchers may have to contend with the Arod of old after all.
It often takes a team effort to win the World Series, and sometimes the unlikeliest of heroes emerge. However, when a team's star players do the heavy lifting, things seem to come much easier. The Yankees have plenty of players capable of doing more than their fair share, but if the likes of Sabathia, Soriano, Cano, and Arod are able to fulfill their lofty expectations, chances are the team will as well.