Clinching early is a luxury for playoff-bound teams ... or is it? (cont.)
This year's Tigers have to be both exhausted and exhilarated, as they try to stave off a September collapse that would be yet another blow in a tough sports year for their city. "It's good pressure," Tigers manager Jim Leyland told MLB.com recently. "If you handle it right, it's good pressure. If you handle it wrong, it's bad pressure ... It's a fun time. You're in a pennant race. You're playing the team that's right behind you. You can't ask for any more than that. A lot of teams are eliminated already. We're still playing for something and in a pretty good position."
No matter which of those AL Central teams finally emerges from the dark of the postseason struggle into the light of October, they will do so with serious question marks that they won't have much time to correct. The Tigers would surely like to try and get Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson performing at peak ability, just as the Twins would like to give leading AL MVP candidate Joe Mauer as much rest as possible after another long year behind the plate. For both teams, it means having the chance to line up their rotations to maximum effect. For instance, Tigers ace Justin Verlander is scheduled to pitch on Tuesday. If the Twins continue to hang around, Verlander would be lined up to pitch in the regular-season finale on Sunday, October 4, which would likely keep him out until Game 3 of the playoffs. But if the Tigers are able to wrap up the AL Central before the last day, Verlander would be in line to pitch the series opener, which would in turn allow him to make two starts in the ALDS.
Sabathia has been through both scenarios in recent years. In 2007, the Indians clinched the AL Central with a week remaining, and Sabathia made just one start over the final 10 days of the regular season, a seven-inning tune-up in a win over the Royals. But extra rest didn't help him much in the playoffs. Sabathia made his first postseason start that year on five days' rest and labored through a 114-pitch, five-inning outing against the Yankees, although he did get credit for the win. His next two starts came eight days later and six days later, but he got knocked around to the tune of a .350 opponent average and 8.80 ERA.
The next season, he carried the Brewers to October with a complete-game victory against the Cubs on the last day of the season. Forced to pitch on three days rest again in Game 2, he didn't make it out of the fourth inning in a 5-2 loss that buried the Brewers in a two-game hole from which they never recovered.
"I definitely feel fresher this year than last year," Sabathia said on Sunday, almost one year to the day after he pitched the Brewers to their first postseason in 26 years by making his last three starts on three days rest. "It'll be great to get a few days off and make a start where I can pitch with a week's rest. It's more of a mental [exhaustion] than physical, but now I'll get to stay on five days' rest. This is just like with Cleveland two years ago."
This year, Sabathia will have a postseason tune-up start this week before opening Game 1 of the American League Division Series on either October 7 or 8 at Yankee Stadium. But while he welcomes any time off he can get, Andy Pettitte, who will also get one more regular-season and is a leading candidate to fill his customary role of Game 2 starter in a postseason series, is still looking to get back on track after a handful of shaky outings down the stretch. "I want to keep going," he said, "I want to grind it out. I've struggled to get my rhythm back, the last two starts I struggled with that early."
Pettitte and the rest of the Yankees now have a week to work out the kinks. Whether a team inches its way across the line at the last moment or coasts to the finish, all is forgotten the moment Game 1 begins. Which is why all the glories that the Yankees were so justifiably celebrating on Sunday -- their 100th win, the AL East title and home-field advantage throughout the postseason -- will mean so little if they don't have three more celebrations this year. While the Yanks were soaking their fancy new clubhouse, outside in the hallway, a Stadium worker was walking quickly down the concrete corridor echoing the same refrain over and over. "Eleven more," he said. "We have to get 11 more wins now." The real challenge still awaits, and the real work is yet to begin.