The question about the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays was simple enough. Since those teams are separated by one-half game in the American League East, and have been within two-and-a-half games of each other for the last nine weeks, I asked Buck Showalter to assess how evenly matched they are.
Showalter has been managing the improved Orioles for two months and he has been studying the Yankees and the Rays for a lot longer than that. When we spoke on Tuesday, his Orioles were a few hours away from opposing the Rays at the Tropicana Dome. But Showalter’s answer started with praise for the Yankees.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the Yankees,” Showalter said. “I know they’ve been leaking all over lately, but I wouldn’t focus on that. They know where the finish line is.”
The Yankees reached the first finish line of sorts on Tuesday by silencing the Blue Jays, 6-1, to qualify for the postseason. Manager Joe Girardi exhaled, for a few minutes anyway. The first-place Rays reached that line, too, by taming the Orioles, 5-0, and pushing into the postseason. The two teams that have been shadows all season are still tussling for first-place in the division and with each other, and the Twins for the best record in the AL.
As Showalter analyzed the Yankees, he mentioned how deep and devastating their lineup can be, how valuable it is to have a dominating pitcher like CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation and how much postseason experience they possess. Showalter wondered if Phil Hughes or Andy Pettitte would start after Sabathia in Game 2 and also wondered if the disappointing A.J. Burnett would have any role in the Division Series.
The questions about the Yankees’ postseason rotation will be answered in the next few days. When I asked general manager Brian Cashman if the Yankees might use a three-man rotation, which would require Sabathia to pitch on short rest in Game 4, Cashman said, “Those are things we have to talk about.”
Those discussions will determine whether the Yankees trust Burnett, who is 6-15 with a 6.30 earned run average in his last 26 starts, to start a postseason game. Cashman didn’t want to dissect Burnett’s problematic season, but he said the pitcher “is better than this” and “he has lost his way.” Allowing any pitcher to try and find his way in the postseason isn’t prudent.
The Yankees have limped through September because their starting pitchers have imploded. Before Sabathia pitched powerfully into the ninth inning against the Jays, the starters had been 2-10 with a 5.91 ERA in the previous 23 games. Cashman admitted that the starters “haven’t been good,” but he stressed how quickly that could change.
“We have some real talent on this team,” Cashman said. “We know what we can do.”
Next week, the Yankees, the Rays, the Twins and the Rangers will get to show what they can do in the postseason. If Josh Hamilton, who has two fractured ribs, can be a significant contributor for the Rangers, Showalter said they have “as good a chance as anybody to” make it to the World Series.
Showalter watched from the opposing dugout as the Rays celebrated their second postseason berth in franchise history on Tuesday. He considers the Rays dangerous, especially when they unnerve pitchers and catchers with their running game. The Rays have stolen 22 bases in 23 attempts against the Yankees, which is something they will try to exploit if both advance to the ALCS. In a season where the teams have been so evenly matched, that meeting might be destined.
“Maybe this year is different,” Showalter said, “but I wouldn’t underestimate the Yankees.”
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