A lot of things have to go right for any team to win a division series, given the short duration of the series and the narrow margin for error. For the New York Yankees, that margin is even narrower with a 24-game winner like Justin Verlander pitching Games 1 and 5 for the opponent.
That doesn't mean the Yankees can't beat the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS, which begins Friday night at Yankee Stadium. But in order to do so, there are some aspects of their game that absolutely have to go well.
These, of course, are not the only keys to a Yankees ALDS victory over the Tigers, but in my mind, they are the most important ones:
1. No. 3 starter Freddy Garcia must pitch like an ace
Garcia is a great comeback story, and he only gets one shot to make sure the story doesn't end badly. And that shot comes in Game 3, probably the most important game in a five-game series. Because at that point, the Yankees will probably be poised to either go up 2-1, down 1-2, or on to the ALCS.
With the true ace, CC Sabathia, scheduled to go in Game 4 regardless of where the series stands, and with Verlander presumably having won Game 1 (a not-imprudent assumption considering he won 96 percent of his starts this year), Garcia could well be pitching just to get CC one more chance to keep the Yankees alive.
Garcia lost his only start against Detroit this year, allowing 10 hits and four runs in seven innings on May 4. In 2010, as with the White Sox, he was 2-1 with a 4.39 ERA against the Tigers but allowed seven home runs in five starts. Joe Girardi chose him over A.J. Burnett because Garcia's a competitor who "knows how to pitch," but this game will be the sternest test of that competitive fire and pitching savvy that he has faced all season.
2. Alex Rodriguez must morph back into A-Rod
A-Rod. You know, that fearsome hitter in the middle of the Yankees' lineup that other teams are thinking about even when he's not coming to bat that inning. The one who not only affects the game but the way a team pitches to the guys hitting ahead of and behind him.
Problem is, Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez hasn't been A-Rod all season, or at least not since the end of spring training, when everyone was practically handing him his fourth MVP. Although he had spoken of playing 150-plus games for the first time since 2007, injuries to his left shoulder, left thumb and right knee limited him to just 99 games and cut his production to 16 home runs and 62 RBIs, both career lows.
Worst of all, since going on the DL in July to have knee surgery, Rodriguez has played in just 26 games, batted just .212, hit only three home runs and knocked in a paltry 11 runs. The move to drop him out of the cleanup spot, at least against lefties, was long overdue and intended to protect Robinson Cano, the Yankees' best overall hitter. But we saw how well that is working on Tuesday, when Joe Maddon chose to walk Cano to pitch to A-Rod in the third inning of a must-win game.
Expect to see more of the same this series unless Rodriguez miraculously turns it around, but his late scratch from Wednesday's finale with soreness in his surgically repaired knee doesn't bode well.
3. Bridge to So-Ro-Mo needs fortifying
If the Yankees can take a lead to the seventh inning and hand the game off to their generally airtight trio of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, they'll be in great shape. But lately, the sixth inning has been a danger zone, a treacherous neighborhood where leads are blown and narrow deficits become wide gaps.
The main culprit has been Boone Logan, whose status as the only lefty in the 'pen for most of the season maybe caused him to shoulder too much of a workload. Logan had an awful September: 13 appearances, 6 1/3 innings, 10 hits, five earned runs and a 7.11 ERA. More disturbingly, all four of the home runs the "lefty specialist" allowed this year were hit by left-handed batters.
Another lefty, Raul Valdes, might be added to the roster to help out, but his work in the final week of the season was frightening, to say the least. The righties, notably Luis Ayala and Cory Wade, have been steady all season, although both broke down in the final game against Tampa Bay. Wade has been allowing slightly more than one baserunner per inning but has shown a knack for getting key outs, especially strikeouts, when necessary.
Two new additions, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, can help out in particular situations. But for the Yankees to do what brought their last five World Series championships -- namely, shorten the game -- this crew has got to tighten up its act in a hurry.
4. Find a way to beat Max Scherzer
That's right. As great as Verlander is, not one of his 24 victories this season came against the Yankees. In two starts, on Opening Day in the Bronx and in Detroit on May 2, Verlander came away with two no-decisions and a 4.50 ERA. Both times, he pitched virtually the same game: 6 IP, 3 ER, 4 BB, 8 K's. Not bad, but hardly unbeatable.
The Yankees have had success against two other Detroit starters, Rick Porcello, who beat them in Detroit but has a 2-2 record and 5.56 ERA lifetime versus the Yankees, and Doug Fister, whom the Yankees beat in July when he was a Seattle Mariner but has been a far different pitcher (8-1, 1.79) since coming over at the trade deadline.
But the Yankees have never -- I repeat, never -- beaten Scherzer, who is 3-0 with a 2.84 ERA lifetime against them and shut them out on four hits in Detroit on May 4. Check out these averages against him: Cano .125; Jeter .222; Rodriguez and Brett Gardner, .000.
Of the regulars, only Mark Teixeira (.300, 3-for-10 with a HR) and Curtis Granderson (.273) have done much against Scherzer, and Jorge Posada, who will no doubt DH the day Scherzer pitchers, has two HRs in eight at-bats against him.
5. Joe Girardi must manage, not overmanage
Let me begin by saying that if not for the incredible comeback of the Tampa Bay Rays over the final month of the season, my Manager of the Year vote would have gone to GI Joe Girardi over Regular Joe Maddon. Girardi has done an excellent job this year managing through injuries and lack of performance from players he expected to have great years. He has gotten role players like Eduardo Nuñez to step up and has done a much better job of managing his bullpen than he did in 2010, in spite of not having Pedro Feliciano at all this season or Joba Chamberlain for most of it.
And yet, history tells us that now begins Jumpy Joe time, when Girardi seems almost compelled to make his presence known throughout the game, and almost reflexively relies on his array of notebooks and looseleafs to govern his every in-game maneuver. And during last year's playoff run, Girardi became so intense he actually looked ill by the time it ended.
His counterpart in the Tigers dugout, Jim Leyland, is a canny old baseball man who doesn't panic under pressure, who is neither tethered to a stat book nor beholden to any sort of baseball dogma, and is a master in-game strategist. It's true enough that managers almost never win a game, but they sure can lose them, especially if they can't stay out of the way. Leyland will stay out of the way of his club, unless absolutely necessary. The Yankees have to hope that this year, Girardi will stay out of the way of his, too.
Mainly because of the daunting presence of Verlander, who can easily win two of the three games necessary to advance, I picked the Tigers in five games. But if the Yankees can perform in the areas laid out above, that result might just as easily be reversed.