So here we go again. For the third time in the past six years, the Yankees will play the Tigers in the playoffs. Detroit has won the past two, each in the LDS: 3-1 in 2006 and 3-2 last year. Many of the faces are the same this year, but the Tigers have Prince Fielder, and the Yankees don't have Mariano Rivera. Neither team has gotten any younger or more athletic, and each team knows that the window is closing a little more each year.
The time is now.
Here are five questions.
How much will it hurt that Justin Verlander won't start until Game 3?
A lot. Scherzer and Fister are very good pitchers, but Verlander is the best in the game, and has been for two years. Thursday night, he joined Sandy Koufax (Game 7, 1965 World Series) to throw a shutout and strike out 10 in a winner-take-all postseason game. Whatever issues Verlander has had in prior postseasons -- an ERA above 5.00 -- appear to be gone: In two starts against Oakland, he gave up five hits, one run and struck out 22 in 16 innings. He was terrific in leading the Tigers past the relentless A's, but not having Verlander until Game 3 at home obviously will be a blow to the Tigers. Plus, the Yankees scored 58 runs in 10 games (six wins) against the Tigers this year. But the good news is, if the ALCS goes seven games, Verlander will start Game 7.
What will the Yankees do with A-Rod?
Alex Rodriguez was removed for a pinch hitter in Games 3 and 4, the only times he has ever been replaced by a pinch hitter in the postseason, then was benched for Game 5; he had started his previous 70 playoff games. A-Rod was 2-for-16 with nine strikeouts in the LDS against Baltimore, looking as helpless as a 600-home run man can possibly look. One of the many concerns for manager Joe Girardi has been Rodriguez's swing recently against right-handed pitching, and Detroit's projected rotation is all right-handed. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister can be especially hard on right-handed hitters, even those who are swinging the bat well. A-Rod is swinging about as poorly as he has in his life, and things seem to get worse for him in the playoffs: He is 4-for-34 the past two postseasons. But this regular season, the Yankees were 73-46 when Rodriguez played and 22-21 when he didn't. So what is Girardi going to do? We know now that he will not be afraid to hurt anyone's feelings.
How much will it hurt that CC Sabathia can't pitch until Game 3?
A lot. CC Sabathia is by far the Yankees' best pitcher, which he proved again by winning Game 5 of the LDS 3-1 with a complete game against the Orioles. With the way the Yankees swung the bats in that series, chances are they're going to have to outpitch the Tigers, and that's going to be very hard to do without Sabathia going three times, and not until Game 3. Andy Pettitte has the most postseason victories (19) of anyone in history and Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes threw very well in the LDS, but the Yankees are at their best only with Sabathia pitching. And he was 3-0 with a 3.32 ERA against the Tigers this year.
How big a concern is the back of Detroit's bullpen?
It was an even bigger concern than before the ALDS against Oakland. In that division series, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde combined for 4 2/3 innings, giving up eight hits and five earned runs. Benoit gave up another home run; he allowed 14 this season, most among relievers in baseball. Valverde isn't close to being the pitcher he was last year when he went 49-for-49 in saves. Valverde has heart and guts throwing that fastball over and over again, daring hitters to hit it, but this year, they have. And his act can get old when he can't hold a 3-1 lead in the ninth inning in Game 4, forcing the Tigers to use Verlander for Game 5.
How healthy are the Yankees?
Not very healthy. Derek Jeter is going to play every game at shortstop; he wouldn't have it any other way. But he had to leave Game 3 of the ALDS with a sore left foot; it looked so strange, the Yankees playing extra innings with their captain on the bench. He hasn't been running full speed, it seems, for the past month. First baseman Mark Teixeira is playing with a hamstring injury that has to be slowing him down on some level even though he stole a base in Game 5 of the LDS. The Yankees are an old, slow team when they are healthy, but these injuries might make them older and slower. But, the Tigers are a slow team also.
The pick: Yankees in seven.