Yankees weekly preview: Bouncing back

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

After a tough series in Boston, the Yankees take on two cellar-dwelling opponents with a chance to salvage their season and set up a do-or-die series against Tampa Bay next week for the Wild Card.

This week, the Yankees will take on the Blue Jays in Toronto before returning to the Bronx to face the San Francisco Giants.

Probable starters:

9/16 - Off

9/17 - at Toronto - Andy Pettitte vs. R.A. Dickey

9/18 - at Toronto - Phil Hughes vs. J.A. Happ

9/19 - at Toronto - Hiroki Kuroda vs. Todd Redmond

9/20 - vs. San Francisco - CC Sabathia vs. Tim Lincecum

9/21 - vs. San Francisco - Ivan Nova vs. Ryan Vogelsong

9/22 - vs. San Francisco - Andy Pettitte vs. Yusmeiro Petit

The Opponents: Toronto Blue Jays and San Francisco Giants

If the Yankees ever had a chance to make up some real ground, this is it. Both the Blue Jays and Giants have been colossal disappointments this season, the Blue Jays after pulling in a massive free agent haul this offseason by signing Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and R.A. Dickey, the Giants after winning two World Series titles in three years. Both find themselves at the bottom of their divisions and both have little to play for at this point in the year, except to spoil the playoff aspirations of the teams remaining on their schedule.

Toronto: The Blue Jays have been bad lately, just as they've been all year. They were swept by the Angels and lost two of three to the Orioles in the past week, and besides, they're just 3-13 against the Yankees this season (although they did take two of three the last time New York traveled to Toronto). While Toronto is three games better at home than they are away, it really doesn't make much of a difference--they've just been bad wherever they've played this year. With Jose Bautista now shut down for the year, their offense falls almost entirely on the shoulders of Jose Reyes (who is playing well of late, hitting .296 with seven doubles this month) and Edwin Encarnacion (who just recently returned from a wrist injury that cost him four games). They just don't have the bats to put up much of a fight at this point, so look for the Yankees, even with their weak pitching of late, to still have enough to handle the Jays.

San Francisco: How the mighty have fallen. After taking two of the past three Fall Classics, the Giants will not be returning to the playoffs this year. They're one of the worst teams in the NL, and while they haven't played the Yankees this year, they sport just a 29-43 road record, meaning their trip to New York could turn ugly, fast. They're 20th in runs scored and 21st in ERA. Except for a Tim Lincecum no-hitter, it's been a season to forget for the Giants. Only team ace Madison Bumgarner has been good for the Giants pitching staff, and with him going on Thursday against the New York Mets, the Yankees will luckily get to avoid facing him. And while Hunter Pence (.341 BA and .532 SLG since the All-Star Break) has been better of late, Pablo Sandoval's lack of power (just 13 HR and 73 RBI this season) and Buster Posey's lackluster second half (.268 BA with just 15 RBI) have left the Giants incapable of putting up enough runs to make up for their bad starting pitching. Look for the Giants pitchers to be even worse than the Yankees in the Bronx this weekend, and for New York to take care of business against a bad team.

Pitching Highlight:

CC Sabathia vs. Tim Lincecum - In a matchup that would have been the highlight of the series just a few short years ago, this Friday the Bronx will see a battle of fallen aces. While Lincecum hasn't matched the career-high ERA of 5.18 he posted last year, he still has been a shadow of his Cy Young award winning self. With a 4.40 ERA and a 1.32 ERA this year, Lincecum has been nothing special. His K/9 has dropped substantially in the past five years (from 10.51 in 2008 to 8.85 this year), and with it, so has Lincecum's ability to be effective. However, he has won two of his three starts in September, and four of his last five overall, en route to posting a 3.77 ERA in those five games. Lately, Lincecum's been as good as he's been all season, perhaps spurred on by his upcoming free agency. The Yankees should have their chances against him, but they'd better capitalize, especially considering how inconsistent their own pitching has been lately.

Sabathia hasn't really been inconsistent this year--he's just been bad. Since the All-Star Break, his ERA is a 6.58, and teams are batting almost .300 (.298 to be exact) against him. Much of this is due to his decreased velocity (more on that here), and he's no longer the workhorse he used to be (230+ IP in 2009-2011, and on pace for just over 200 this year). His decline has been a major blow to the Yankees' hopes, especially down the stretch as Hiroki Kuroda has also begun to struggle. This battle between two once-great pitchers who have steeply declined over the past couple years will probably be more of an offensive battle than a pitching duel, but it will be key for the Yankees, both to see if Sabathia has anything left, and to see if the Yankees can put away teams they should in order to set up a do-or-die series with the Tampa Bay Rays in the last week of the season. Sabathia's start will set the tone for the Giants series, a series that, if the Yankees lose, may well end any chance the Yankees have of seeing October baseball this year.

Who's Hot and Who's Not:

Hot:

- Robinson Cano - It seems like he's always hot (actually, it doesn't seem, he just is). Four for four with three doubles in one game against the Red Sox? A .339 BA while slugging .559 in September? What else can he do, start pitching in relief? Actually that might not be a bad idea, because he can't possibly be worse than Preston Claiborne and Joba Chamberlain. Nothing else needs to be said about Cano. Except, of course, for this: pay him. Pay him, Yankees. I'm begging you. Just pay him, please.

- Alex Rodriguez - While he's cooled off against the Red Sox unfortunately, A-Rod was a big part of why the Yankees took three of four from Baltimore earlier last week. Rodriguez had five hits in just 14 AB against the Orioles, including two doubles and two homers. He's batting .304 and slugging .652 over the past week, and his consistent production since he returned from injury has been a major boon to the decimated Yankee lineup. Love him or hate him, the fact remains: the Yankees are much better with him than without him, and when he's on, he's one of the best hitters on the team. Look for him to be on this week, especially against R.A. Dickey, who he's a .421 hitter against in his career.

Not:

- Ichiro Suzuki - As bad at the plate as he's been this year, he's been absolutely awful for the past two months, and especially so far in September. He's batting only .176 with a horrendous .222 OBP this month, combining with the likes of Chris Stewart and Austin Romine to make the bottom of the Yankees lineup especially inept. While his speed on the bases is still theoretically valuable, he can't use it if he can't get on base. However, the Yankees don't really have any other options, especially with Brett Gardner's injury (it really is just a cursed season, isn't it?), so it seems like we'll be stuck with Ichiro for the time being. And don't expect any miracles; he looked to be turning things around this summer (.292 BA in June, .305 in July), but since then, he's hitting just .214. He's trending the wrong way, and looks to be seeing the year out with a whimper.

Prediction: 5-1 (2-1 against Toronto, 3-0 against San Francisco)

Things are shaping up for an epic series against Tampa Bay in a week. The Rays face the Texas Rangers and then the Orioles this week, meaning the Yankees can make up some ground against two teams at the bottoms of their divisions. While I count on Phil Hughes to lose every time out, I expect Pettitte to out-duel Dickey and Kuroda to keep the Yankees close enough until they eventually get to Redmond.

Against San Francisco, the pressure of extending their season should be enough motivation for the Yankee bats to come alive against a Giants pitching staff that has been beat up all year. Nova and Pettitte should hopefully continue to pitch well, and while Sabathia has been bad, Lincecum has been bad, too (and Sabathia has a better offense supporting him). Look for a much-needed sweep in the Bronx this weekend to set up the series of the year against Tampa Bay.

What do you think? Share your opinions in the poll and the comments below!

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