Yankees vs. Orioles V: This Time it's Personal

The Yankees last saw the Orioles nearly three months ago, having played Baltimore 12 times in a span of about six weeks and going 10-2 in those contests. The last time the two teams played Baltimore snapped the Yankees’ 10-game winning streak against them by countering with the Yankee baseball equivalent of a wooden stake or silver bullets: a rookie starting pitcher making his Major League debut in Jake Arrieta. That, or an off-speed pitcher with a ruthless changeup. And if you’re able to combine the whole rookie-making-his-MLB-debut thing with a starter who can’t break 90 and has a 77-mph changeup, you can create the ultimate Yankee-killing machine, also known as Josh Tomlin.

In any event, a funny thing happened on the way to ignominy for the 2010 Baltimore Orioles: They hired former Yankee (and Diamondback and Ranger) skipper Buck Showalter to try to turn around what has become a bit of a mess of a franchise and end the year on a respectable note while ideally becoming considerably more competitive next year. So far Buck’s been pretty much able to do just that, as the O’s have gone 18-13 since his first game on August 3, and seems to have ignited a bit of a fire under Baltimore’s collective behinds. Interestingly, the O’s recent success has been far more due to their pitching staff. Their season batting line is .257/.313/.388 through Saturday night’s game, while their line since Buck took over is an almost-identical .261/.307/.402. However, the pitching staff’s ERA on the year is a second-worst-in-the-AL 4.80, but it’s 3.53 during the 31 games Showalter’s been in the dugout.

Why Buck Showalter and not, say, Juan Samuel or Dave Trembley, has been able to get through to what is essentially the same exact core of players is one of those baseball mysteries we’ll never really have an answer to, but nevertheless it’s great for Baltimore and for baseball to see a team that — despite getting walked all over by the entire league for much of the year — does actually have talent and is figuring out how to harness it.

Truly, if the Orioles continue to improve, the AL East is incredibly going to be an even scarier place to reside in 2011, with the Blue Jays perhaps only a few patient bats away from becoming serious contenders (they certainly don’t need any more starting pitching) and the O’s featuring an exciting pitching core of Brian Matusz (1.9 fWAR), Jeremy Guthrie and Arrieta along with Nick Markakis, who pretty much has to have a better season next year; Luke Scott, a presumably still-improving Adam Jones and Matt Wieters; and the return of a healthy Brian Roberts.

Given the Orioles’ newfound pitching gravitas along with perhaps a bit of a chip still remaining on Buck Showalter’s shoulder after his falling out with the Yankees — the one organization in all of baseball which, according to several anecdotal accounts I’ve read, he’s always truly loved and felt incredibly strongly about being a part of — following the 1995 season (hence the title of this post), I’m interested to see what kind of Orioles team shows up in this three-game set. For what it’s worth, I’m a huge Buck fan, given that he played a significant role in turning the Yankees around from the laughingstock of baseball in the early 90s — the time period which coincided with my coming-of-age as a Yankee fan — to kings of the sport. It’s a shame he wasn’t actually at the helm when the Bombers finally broke their 18-year title drought in 1996, but what are you gonna do?

In the first game, the Yankees send A.J. Burnett (5.15 ERA; 4.72 FIP; 4.64 xFIP) to the mound against Brian Matusz (4.72 ERA; 4.21 FIP; 4.63 xFIP), who has faced the Yanks three times this season and lost all three games, despite averaging just over six inning an outing and giving up a mere five earned runs. Burnett starts remain completely unpredictable, though the Yankees play the Orioles extremely tough at home, and even with the newly hungry O’s I think the Yanks can beat Matusz yet again.

The Yankees get their second look at Jake Arrieta (5.11 ERA; 5.10 FIP; 5.57 xFIP) in the second game, and Arrieta has the unenviable task of facing CC Sabathia (3.02 ERA; 3.61 FIP; 3.85 xFIP), who is 4-0 with a 2.73 ERA in 29.2 IP pitched against the O’s this season. Though I don’t have the numbers, I feel pretty confident in saying that the Yankees almost certainly fare better against guys who owned them the first time out the second time around. Additionally, Arrieta’s been getting roughed up of late, with a 5.20 ERA and 4.73 FIP during the past month. On the other hand, Sabathia’s been incredible and will also be gunning for 20 wins for this first time in his career. I’ll be at this one, and I expect Sabathia and the Yanks to take care of business.

And the finale has Brad Bergeson (5.47 ERA; 5.30 FIP; 4.98 xFIP) facing Ivan Nova (2.89 ERA; 3.96 FIP; 4.03 xFIP). The Yanks ripped Bergeson for six earned runs in 2 1/3 innings back on June 2, and I can’t imagine they’ll have much trouble with him again. Though Bergeson’s been better of late, posting a 2.81 ERA over the last 30 days, that comes with a 4.40 FIP, which means he’s also been extremely lucky, and the Yankees tend to eat guys who have -1.59 ERA-FIP gaps for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nova’s done pretty much everything the Yanks could’ve hoped for thus far with regards to keeping them in games, and he should fare well against an O’s team that doesn’t have anywhere near the pop of the Blue Jays or White Sox lineups.

Here are the two teams’ offense and pitching numbers:

Despite their improved play of late, the Baltimore Buck Showalters (h/t to MJR) are still a pretty bad team, and clearly vastly inferior to the Yankees, who have been the hottest team in baseball. Baltimore’s overall pitching numbers are pretty awful (4.67 FIP), and they actually should be even worse (4.73 xFIP), which is not something we see too often. The offense is also relatively nonexistent, but we knew that already.

Anything less than two of three would of course be a major disappointment, and the Yankees really have no excuse not to sweep the O’s this week.

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