On Sunday evening at 6 ET on TBS, two very familiar foes will get together at Oriole Park at Camden Yards as the American League East champion Yankees face the AL Wild Card-winning O's for the opener of a best-of-five AL Division Series. It will be the 19th meeting this season between the division rivals, but the stakes are completely different this time around.
The playoffs are back in Baltimore. And while the crowds were rowdy when the Yankees visited in early September, Sunday should bring a whole new level of craziness -- weather permitting. (With rain in the forecast, it's worth noting that a postponement would push Game 1 to Monday and eliminate Tuesday's travel day.)
"It's a little hard to describe," manager Buck Showalter said. "It's not one of those things I don't know how it's going to be. Regardless of the outcome, there's going to be a real nice feeling to share in what the fans are feeling.
"We landed last night and the guys got to the bottom of the steps, and five or six flight support guys were down there clapping for them. Seeing how excited our bus driver was. We got back here at 5 o'clock or something in the morning, I'm not sure what it was, and there were six or seven fans that -- I don't know if they just stayed up or got up real early -- were standing by the players' parking lot gate. We're excited. Everyone is excited with them and for them."
The O's made a late run at the division title after New York held a commanding midseason lead. They then upset the Rangers at Arlington in the AL Wild Card game, which they entered appearing to have the short end of the starting pitching matchup. If the odds are stacked against the O's -- and that seems to be the conventional wisdom -- it won't bother them.
"It really means nothing to us," said O's Game 1 starter Jason Hammel. "It's a bunch of people telling us that we couldn't do anything, so obviously we were supposed to finish last; that didn't happen. We weren't supposed to get to the playoffs; that didn't happen. It's something that we don't really look at."
Though the teams finished the regular season separated by two games, and though they split 18 head-to-head meetings, Baltimore will once again be a heavy underdog. Hammel, returning from a right knee injury, makes his first competitive start since Sept. 11. He'll be followed by Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez in Games 2 and 3, respectively.
While Hammel is solid, he's no AL Cy Young Award winner. New York will counter with ace CC Sabathia, who has won pitching's highest honor. Being able to pitch Sabathia in Game 1 is one advantage of having won the division rather than a Wild Card berth.
"This is what you play for as a kid," Sabathia said. "Trying to win a championship and being able to be in the postseason with the Yankees means a lot to me, and this organization is unbelievable. All the World Series championships and all the guys we have in the clubhouse that have been there I think helps you out, takes the pressure off, and you can just go out and do your part and have a good chance to win."
Trying to keep the O's in the park is not easy, especially at Camden Yards. The Yanks can surely mash, but unless Sabathia is at his best in the opener, they'll have to if they want to win. Of course, the same goes for Hammel. The Yankees' lineup thrives at home and on the road. Two hitters' parks and two powerful lineups could add up to some high-scoring contests in this series.
Sabathia has dealt with some issues this year, and as recently as mid-September, there were worries about just how strong he'd be for the postseason. But three straight superb starts put those concerns to rest, and now the left-hander looms as one of the most critical assets for manager Joe Girardi's team.
Sabathia hasn't always been effective in the postseason, but there's enough of a body of work to make it clear that he's one of the game's best pitchers, whether it's April or October. The Yankees know they have the offense, and they know they have a stout bullpen. The question for them this October will be whether the rotation is good enough, and that starts with Sabathia in Game 1 of the ALDS.
"I don't think you can make too much of last year, just because of the way the schedule was," Girardi said, referring to October rain delays. "We started a game and stopped it, and then he came back on short rest, so I don't really make too much of that. He pitched well against Minnesota in Game 1 [of the 2010 ALDS]. I don't really recall exactly how he did against Texas [in the 2010 AL Championship Series]. But, I mean, he's pitched pretty well, for the most part."
One other factor that could come into play: weather. Sunday's forecast calls for rain in Baltimore, and both managers acknowledged that weather issues could affect who makes their respective ALDS rosters.
Yankees: Rolling Robbie
There may not be a hitter in baseball hotter than Robinson Cano. The Yanks' keystone man has nine straight multihit games, having finished the regular season on a ridiculous 24-for-39 (.615) tear. He tallied three homers, 14 RBIs, 11 runs and seven doubles in that span.
That surge helped the Yanks reclaim their accustomed spot atop the AL East. Cano hit .347 in September, and New York finished the season on a 17-6 run.
"That was a coming-out party for Robbie," said teammate Alex Rodriguez. "With the world watching, when we needed him the most -- it reminded me of [Hideki] Matsui in '09. As the guy hitting in front of him, you just don't want to disturb him; you just want to keep the line moving. You want the bat in his hands as often as possible."
On a team laden with superstars, it may seem strange to think of the quiet Cano as the Yankees' best hitter, but that's assuredly what he is. He's the engine that makes this lineup go, and he'll be looking to improve on a lifetime .258/.307/.491 postseason batting line.
"Robbie is a huge bat for us," Girardi said. "Absolutely huge."
First baseman Mark Teixeira went 1-for-12 over the final three games of the regular season after returning from a left calf injury that cost him 30 games in August and September. Teixeira's one hit was a home run, but he went 0-for-9 over the last two games.
Teixeira appears to be healthy enough to play for the Yankees, having started all three games of the Yankees' season-ending series with Boston. But his effectiveness will be one of the bigger questions facing the team as the playoffs dawn.
Power is the name of the game for the Yankees, who set a franchise record and led the Major Leagues with 245 home runs this year. They hit 31 more than any other team in baseball, with the Orioles a distant second.
And while Yankee Stadium is a factor in that, no team in baseball hit more road homers than New York's 107. The new ballpark in the Bronx is a good place to hit, but this team hits everywhere. And the ball can jump out in Baltimore, too.
Orioles: Buck is back
For Showalter, this is a third Division Series, and the third uniform in which he's done it. A strong candidate for AL Manager of the Year honors, he's earned plaudits all season for pulling just the right levers in the Orioles' bullpen.
It worked out again in the Wild Card game, as Showalter's unconventional choice of Joe Saunders to start worked out beautifully. Then the Baltimore relief corps brought home the win against a potent offense in a great park for hitters.
It's been a particularly memorable year, with Showalter bringing back a proud franchise that had dealt with a lengthy fallow period. He's the first Orioles manager with a winning record since Davey Johnson, who helmed the club in 1996-97, and the once-fiery skipper seems to have a slightly softer edge these days. And he loves the team he's taking into battle every day.
"It's about the players," Showalter said after the Wild Card win. "I didn't do it. I had good players, general manager, scouts, our front office. It's just unfortunate in our society we want to hang the golden hero around somebody. It doesn't fit in this case. With our team, it's just a bunch of guys that raised the bar and wouldn't give in and still haven't. Now, they get a chance to win, to roll the dice, and there's a lot of good card players in there."
Sunday's game will be the first playoff game in Baltimore since Game 6 of the 1997 ALCS, a 1-0 Orioles loss to the Indians in 11 innings. In each of the O's previous four trips to the postseason, they won their first series. The last time they didn't win their first series was '74, when they lost the ALCS to the A's.
Orioles relievers pitched the fourth-most innings of any bullpen in the Major Leagues this year, with 545 1/3. Washington and Oakland were the only other postseason teams to rank in the top 14 in relief innings pitched, coming in seventh (515 1/3) and 10th (512), respectively. The O's have not lost a game all year when they lead after seven innings, and no team had fewer relief losses than the Orioles' 11.
Baltimore will play its first playoff series in 15 years without its two longest-tenured players. Second baseman Brian Roberts is out for the season after undergoing surgery for a hip injury. Markakis still hopes to return this year from a left thumb injury, but he likely would not be available before the World Series, if the O's were to get that far.
Baltimore outscored New York, 92-90, in the 18 regular-season meetings.
Sabathia has a 5.00 lifetime ERA in eight Division Series appearances (seven starts), with 26 walks issued in 36 innings.
The Orioles and Yankees have met once in the postseason, with New York taking the 1996 ALCS, four games to one. That's the only previous time the Orioles have faced a divisional foe in the postseason. The Yankees have faced division rivals four other times -- winning two out of three ALCS matchups with the Red Sox and winning a 1981 ALDS against the Brewers.