ALDS Preview: Yankees have the formula to combat Orioles' magic
Baltimore and New York battled for first place in the AL East throughout September
Robinson Cano is the hottest hitter in baseball: .615 in his last nine games
The Yankees handed the Orioles their only two exta-nning losses this season
The Orioles have been relentless and unshakeable this season, but since their last day alone in first place in the American League East on June 7, they one thing they haven't been able to do is get past the Yankees. Baltimore pulled even with New York atop the AL East on six different occasions in September, spending a total of 10 days in first place, but not once was it able to hold first place all on its own.
The division race went down to the final day of the season, with the Yankees ultimately winning by two games after blowing the 10-game lead they held on July 18. Now these two teams, who split their season series 9-9, are back at it in a best-of-five series that will bring one team's season to an end and send the other to the American League Championship Series.
Player To Watch: Robinson Cano
Cano finished the regular season with nine straight multi-hit games, going 24-39 (.615) over that stretch with 10 of those 24 hits going for extra-bases, including three home runs in his final three games. The last time a player had a streak of multi-hit games that long was 2007, and the last time a player put together a longer streak was in 2002. What's more, in the last three seasons, Cano is the only player to have a streak of more than seven multi-hit games, and he's done it twice, an eight-game stretch in 2010 and this year's run. The question now is: How will the three days off the Yankees had between the final day of the season, when Cano went 4-for-4 with a pair of home runs and six RBIs, and the first game of this series impact his hot bat?
One thing seems certain: he won't mind opening this series on the road. Six of the nine games in Cano's season-ending streak were played outside of New York, and he is a career .364/.409/.582 hitter at Camden Yards including a .342/.419/.474 line in 43 plate appearances there this season.
Key Matchup: Yankees switch-hitters vs. Orioles left-handed relievers
The best way to neutralize Cano is with left-handed pitching, something he's been uncharacteristically susceptible to this season. Cano has hit a mere .239/.309/.337 in 269 plate appearances against southpaws this year compared to the solid .300/.343/.475 line he put up against them in his career prior to this season. That Baltimore manager Buck Showalter will try to spot his lefty relievers against Cano is a given. What will be interesting to see is how tempted he is to keep them in the game beyond that one at-bat.
Joe Girardi has toyed with the middle of his order this season more than most managers would with the kind of all-star talent the Yankees have, but the man who has hit behind Cano the most this season has been switch-hitter Mark Teixeira. Teixeira had always been a slightly better hitter from the right side, but that gap has increased dramatically over the last two seasons as he has experienced a sharp decline as a left-handed batter (.230/.328/.447). As a result, he's now much more dangerous when batting right-handed (.283/.354/.556), which would seem to make him perfect protection for Cano. However, the man who has hit behind Cano the most after Teixeira has been another switch-hitter, Nick Swisher, who has done an excellent job at getting on base as a right-handed batter this season (.380 OBP), but has struggled to hit for power from that side (.389 slugging compared to his .517 SLG as a left-handed hitter).
One of Girardi's most common lineup sequences finds Cano followed by both Teixeira and Swisher, which could tempt an opposing manager to leave his lefty in to neutralize Cano and Swisher's power, particularly when lefty Curtis Granderson hits behind Swisher. That temptation may be even greater right now, as Teixeira spent most of September on the bench nursing a calf strain and has gone just 1-for-12 in three games since his return to action on Monday, the one being a left-handed home run.
Stat To Know: Home Run Derby
These are the top two home-run-hitting teams in all of baseball this season. The Yankees set a franchise record with 245 round-trippers this year, the sixth-highest team total in major league history. Curtis Granderson, who topped the Yankees with 43 home runs, one behind Miguel Cabrera's major-league-leading total, hit seven against Baltimore.
The Orioles, meanwhile, ranked second in the majors in home runs with 214. They hit 127 (59 percent) at home and 30 of them in their 18 regular season games against the Yankees, with Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy combining for 13 of those 30 and Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis adding 10 more.
Roster Snapshot: Give 'Em Enough Strop
Baltimore's success this season, particularly in the first half of the season, was built around a strong bullpen, and one of the key components in that bullpen was Pedro Strop, a 27-year-old righty with a high-90s fastball and a nasty slider. Strop appeared in 70 games for the Orioles this year, predominantly as an eighth-inning set-up man, and as late as Aug. 15 had a season ERA of 1.20.
In his 19 appearances since that date, however, he has posted a 7.24 ERA and allowed a run in nine of those appearances, three of which resulted in blown saves. Included in that stretch were three appearances against the Yankees in early September, two of them blown saves, in which he faced 12 batters, walked five, gave up four hits, including an Alex Rodriguez home run, recorded just two outs, was charged with three runs and let all four of his inherited runners score. As a result, Strop hasn't entered a game with a lead since his last blown save on Sept. 22. The Orioles have the bullpen depth to cope with what is effectively the loss of Strop as a viable high-leverage reliever, but his late season collapse still represents a big loss. That's compounded by the fact that he remains on the roster, compromising that depth not only by failing to contribute, but by taking the place of a potentially more effective pitcher.
X-factor: Close And Late
By now you've surely heard that the Orioles have had spectacular success in one-run and extra-inning games this season. The O's 29-9 record in one-run games this year was the best in major league history, and they went 16-2 in extra-innings and enter the postseason with an active streak of 16 straight extra-inning wins. What you might not have heard is that the Orioles' two extra-inning losses this season both came against the Yankees in the only two extra-inning contests between the two teams this season, or that the Yankees are responsible for a third of the Orioles' losses in one-run games this year, having gone 3-2 against Baltimore in such contests in 2012.
Prediction: Yankees in five