Yanks see threats in Granderson's former club
Despite owning AL's top seed, club not taking Tigers lightly
NEW YORK -- The American League Division Series has seemed to be little more than a necessary annoyance over the last two years for the Yankees -- something to hurdle before they play at the next level.
But if the Yankees were to treat their matchup with the Tigers as a cakewalk, they might wind up being sorely disappointed. They may not be chewing their fingernails, but everyone recognizes this first round is setting up to be a true battle.
It all gets under way on Friday at 8:37 p.m. ET on TBS, as trusted lefty CC Sabathia draws the Game 1 assignment from manager Joe Girardi for the Yankees, asked to match 24-game winner Justin Verlander pitch for pitch under the lights at Yankee Stadium.
"It's two of the finest, obviously," Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "We're facing the head of the class in Verlander. He's a great pitcher, and he's had a historical year. I know [Tigers manager] Jim Leyland is going to have his guys ready; Joe is going to have us ready. It's a great match."
The Yankees are ready to place their first-round bets heavily on Sabathia's shoulders, with Girardi announcing on Thursday that he plans to pitch Sabathia in a Game 4 at Comerica Park, if necessary.
"You sign up here to try to win championships," Sabathia said. "And you are expected to do that. I've always said, once you go out and you've got Derek Jeter and [Mariano Rivera] out there and you have Alex [Rodriguez] out there, it takes a lot of pressure off."
Pitching on short rest is a wrinkle that didn't come up in the Yankees' two previous three-game ALDS sweeps of the Minnesota Twins, but the Tigers aren't giving anyone reason to boast, with starters Doug Fister and Max Scherzer lying ahead as additional stumbling blocks.
Sabathia said that the one player he doesn't want to let beat him is Miguel Cabrera; no surprise there.
"It's a complete team," Girardi said. "They're very sound fundamentally. Their starting rotation is good, their bullpen is good, they have left-handers in their bullpen -- their lineup is very good, and it's deep. ... So this is a very good club. You don't win 95 games by accident."
The matchup has a fun twist for Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson, who was arguably the Tigers' most popular player before his baseball life was turned inside-out by a December 2009 three-team trade that sent him to the Yankees.
Granderson now stands as a legitimate AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate, having ranked in the top three during the regular season in runs (136, first), homers (41, second) and RBIs (119, third), though the Tigers wouldn't hit the undo button after seeing the contributions of Austin Jackson, acquired from the Yankees, and Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"It's going to be exciting," Granderson said. "I'm just looking forward to getting a chance to play against them. Now that it's the postseason, it's probably a little bit more exciting."
Yankees veteran Jorge Posada said that the team needs to place importance on winning Game 1, especially in a shorter best-of-five series.
"Find a way," Posada said. "If you can't beat Verlander, you try to beat the team later. It is important to win at home, especially when CC is on the mound. They have the same thing with Verlander on the mound. You want to win the ballgame when your ace is on the mound."
Jeter says that Verlander "does everything that you'd want a pitcher to do," though as imposing as Verlander's statistics may be, the Yankees touched him up for three runs in six innings back on Opening Day in New York. Does that March 31 evidence help? Not really, Posada says.
"That's in the past," Posada said. "I think he is, in our eyes, one of the top pitchers in the big leagues. We've got our hands full."
Of course, the Yankees have other reasons for confidence. It's been about a week since they actually had to play a must-win game, having locked up the AL East on Sept. 21 and coasting to the finish line while balancing playing spoiler and resting their regulars for Friday.
Mark Teixeira said that it won't be a problem to turn it back on to playoff level, because the players who were actually in the lineup weren't slacking in those games against the Rays and Red Sox.
"When you talk about how we had to execute each play, we don't think in the back of our minds, 'Oh, this game doesn't count,'" Teixeira said. "I'm out there trying to make every play in the field, trying to hit the ball hard every time up.
"The pitcher is out there trying to execute his pitches. The reason that we've been able to not worry about winning or losing the last week is that we won so many games and we were resting some guys. But every play that we were in was meaningful."
The Yankees' hopes are boosted by the fact that they will get to enjoy the Bronx through the AL portion of postseason play, by virtue of owning the Junior Circuit's best record. It's something that benefited them in 2009, a fact that is lost on no one.
"We're pretty excited," Rodriguez said. "We worked long and hard to be in this position. Obviously, we know that home-field advantage is something you work hard for, 162 games. We attained that, that's the first goal, and now we're prepared to have a good series."